Legally Blind Triathlete in a Legal Bind Over Blackout Glasses

by Gina DeVitis

A legally blind World Champion athlete is suing three triathlon organizations for a rule requiring visually impaired competitors to wear “blackout glasses” during the marathon portion of their competitions.  The plaintiff, Aaron Scheidies, filed the suit last Wednesday at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan for the alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

According to the submitted complaint against USA Triathlon (USAT), the International Triathlon Union (ITU), and 3-D Racing, LLC, the rule in question violates the ADA because it discriminates against the visually impaired and blind by denying equal access to athletic competition and recreation as would be given to an able-bodied competitor.  The “blackout glasses”, which completely diminish any remaining eyesight, have been required accoutrement for visually impaired participants since 2010. 

In a statement released by the ITU, the purpose of the rule is to create an even playing field for what is a spectrum of visual ability in its disabled competitors.

“The rule exists to create a fairer competition for all athletes,” the ITU says, “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 was born with a hereditary eye condition called Stargardt’s Disease, which slowly deteriorates central vision.  The 30-year-old Detroit native can currently only see about 20% of what a fully sighted person is able to, but he feels no distinct advantage over his more visually impaired competitors.

“There are many fully blind individuals that are more successful than others that have some sight,” he says, “They are just better at adapting.”

Scheidies has participated in more than 200 triathlons, including the Ironman Competition, which consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a full 26.2 mile marathon, all in succession.  He is an eight-time triathlon National Champion and a seven-time triathlon World Champion.  But for him, adapting to his own level of vision is still a continuous process.

“I have spent every second of my life figuring out how to succeed with the vision I have,” Scheidies says, “A fully blind individual spends every second of their life figuring out how to succeed with the vision they have.  This rule puts the partially sighted person back to day one of figuring out how to succeed.”

The plaintiff and his attorney, Richard H. Bernstein, believe that the glasses are not only dangerous for the wearer, but also dangerous to the competitors around them.  According to their complaint, unlike someone who is completely blind, a visually impaired person relies on his residual vision and is not trained or adjusted to engage in physical activities without any sight.

When Scheidies himself tried on the blackout glasses, he ran off the road several times and injured himself within his first couple minutes.

“Under the ADA, Aaron Scheidies is a qualified individual with a disability, entitled to a reasonable accommodation,” says Bernstein, who is fully blind, “But ‘leveling the playing field’ by making an individual more disabled is ridiculous and exposes them to great danger.”

The definition of a disabled person in the ADA includes Scheidies because he is still considered “substantially impaired in the major life activity of seeing.”  Scheidies, who has a doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Washington, views the “blackout glasses” as a huge physical danger to participants in the triathlons.

“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,” he says, “The result is loss of balance, vertigo, disorientation and significant risk of falling.”

The ITU claims it has been in the process of creating an evidence-based paratriathlon classification system backed by a substantial research team.  They are committed to having the new system ready by 2013, which would overhaul the previous rules of the competition, including the “blackout” requirement.

The other two defendants have not released a statement at this time.

Scheidies and his attorney, however, claim to have tried working with the organizations for the past two years to no avail, and remain doubtful they will stick to their word.

The case seeks relief in the form of an injunction against enforcing the “blackout glasses” rule, as well as full and equal access to all offered programs and services by the defendants for individuals with disabilities.

“When I train and compete I feel free from the pressures of society,” Scheidies says, “Now I feel society is taking away the single most powerful thing in my life, the opportunity to compete to the best of my ability.”

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