By Julie DeVito
A legally blind professional athlete is suing three triathlon groups over a rule that forces visually impaired runners to wear “blackout glasses” that leave them completely blind.
The 3-D racing company that sponsors races, used to have three divisions in which visually impaired athletes can compete. Now, partially blind athletes must wear glasses that are supposed to even the playing field so they can equally compete against fully blind athletes.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by Aaron Scheidies, 30, claims that the obligation does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Acts. The suit is against USA Triathlon, the USA International Triathlon Union, and 3-D Racing.
His attorney, Richard Bernstein, said that taking away what little vision someone has left is dangerous, absurd, and undoubtedly illegal.
“It is illegal to require Aaron to wear black out glasses that no able-bodied person would have to wear as a condition of receiving a reasonable accommodation in a triathlon,” Bernstein said. “USA Triathlon is discriminating against legally blind competitors, stripping them of their dignity and depriving them of their ability to participate in the athletic activity they love.”
Scheidies said that his experience using the “blackout glasses” was humiliating and scary and the thought of using them again makes him want to quit running. When he used the blackout glasses, even with a guide, he hit his head on a pole and fell into a ditch.
“It was so scary and brought tears to my eyes. I felt defeated and less of a human being,” Scheidies said. “As a physical therapist, I am very aware of the medical effects of making yourself blind and then attempting to run as fast as you can. The result is loss of balance, vertigo, disorientation and significant risk of falling. This rule puts not only the person wearing the glasses at risk but all other competitors on the course. It is extremely dangerous.”
In his life, Scheidies said that he has found that society has difficulty comprehending that someone with a disability can succeed on a more elite level and that there is a ceiling upon which their validity is questioned if they pass it.
“Many times I feel as though I need to prove that what I accomplish is legit,” Scheidies said. “It is tough but I strive to break down these barriers and educate society that just like for everyone else, we should not put a ceiling on potential.”
The International Triathlon Union said that the rule exists to create a fairer competition for all athletes. The rule is in place only during the run portion of the triathlon. Currently, the ITU said that they working to have a new system ready by 2013 that will eliminate the need for the blackout glasses.
“Partially blind athletes and completely blind athletes compete in the same category and partially blind athletes have an advantage over those who are completely blind,” the ITU said in a statement.
Scheidies, who has about 20% left of his vision has successfully competed in 200 triathlons and is a seven-time triathlon World Champion and eight-time National Champion. He said that other blind athletes come to him with their concerns and fears about the black out glasses rule.
“I am purely being the voice for the blind community,” he said. “I am not doing this for myself. I am doing this as an ambassador for the blind and visually impaired community. Over the last 2 years we have tried everything to work with USAT and ITU but they have not listened. I fear people will get hurt and others will be detoured from participation.”