By: Luis Ayala
A blind, world-class athlete is suing three major triathlon organizations for requiring visually impaired runners to wear blackout glasses, rendering them visionless while they compete. The controversial measure was implemented in an effort to “level the playing field” among partially and fully disabled athletes.
The lawsuit is being filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of Aaron Scheidies, a 30-year-old, legally blind athlete and seven-time triathlon World Champion. The lawsuit targets USA Triathlon, the International Triathlon Union, and 3-D Racing LLC. The requirement is under fire for allegedly violating the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
Scheidies, who has only 20% of his vision, suffers from Stargardt’s disease, a common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration. According to the formal complaint filed by his attorney Richard Bernstein, who is also blind from birth, wearing the blackout glasses would “eliminate any residual vision and result in a legally blind athlete, such as the Plaintiff, losing what vision he has left.”
In a statement, International Triathlon Union said, “the rule exists to create a fairer competition for all athletes because 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.”
Scheidies, who completed his Doctorate in Physical Therapy in 2008, had been disqualified previously by the USA Triathlon for refusing to wear the glasses while competing. However, he can recall an instance when he did attempt to use the glasses during a race and said, “When I tried running with the blackout glasses with a guide, I hit my head on a pole, fell into a ditch and ran off the road several times all in a two minute time span. It was so scary and brought tears to my eyes.”
According to the lawsuit, “Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability,” and also constitutes that “a public accommodation shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when the modifications are necessary to afford goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities.”
As specified by the complaint, Scheidies does not seek monetary compensation and while he reserves the rights to do so, he includes another concern in suing over the controversial measure. “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.”
Scheidies, who has competed in several sports competitions on the national and international level, has made it clear that he will not participate in further events held by the ITU or its affiliates if they continue to support the vexed regulation. “The thought of having to wear those glasses makes me want to hang up jersey and shoes and call it a career,” said Scheidies. In a recent statement, ITU confirmed plans to create a new system by 2013 as well as fully revise their rules of competition.