Forced into Blindness and Fighting Back!

By Randy Pierce

There’s an old saying that out of sight is out of mind. The following example is quite the opposite: three organizations have been requiring all legally blind athletes to be completely blinded in order to compete in their events, a decision which is very much in the minds of many.

Since March of 2010, the USA Triathlon, International Triathlon Union, and 3D Racing LLC have installed this ludicrous and hypocritical rule upon the legally blind competitors. They impose and enforce this rule without a single blind individual upon the committee which establishes this approach.

Prior rulings had multiple categories for the varying levels of vision which encompass the blind community. As the number of competitors did not, in their opinion, support these multiple categories, they chose to combine them into one category and then suggest that in the interest of fair play all of the competitors must wear the full occlusion glasses. They have done this at significant risk to all the athletes involved in their competition.

The immediate and primary concern with this ruling is safety. Requiring people who live their lives with partial sight to now undertake a challenging competition with no sight is a very significant risk to the individual and all those around them. The evidence of this is overwhelming, yet it’s two years of complaints later and there is still no change to the process.

The hypocrisy is clear in rules which prohibit wearing of headphones because of the significant risk added in the loss of hearing for competitors, yet they suggest removing any sight from the vast majority of a category. The vast majority of “legally blind” persons have some usable vision–statistics range from 83%-95% of them, depending on the source. People living with a certain amount of sight, however much impacted, will suffer considerable detriment to their safety when forced to lose of all those keys they rely on for normal skills and moreso under the duress of competition.

Besides, this very notion of leveling the playing field actually does no such thing–it creates an advantage to the totally blind individual who has already built up secondary skills to vision for managing such things. Their goal of fairness is removed immediately and to do so it adds an entirely unacceptable and likely illegal risk.

For that latter point, Aaron Scheidies, a visually impaired triathlete, has filed a lawsuit he explains on his youtube video. He is requesting no financial damages and his lawyer is taking the case pro bono as a strong indicator to their real intent.

The simple reality is there are many advantages and disadvantages experienced by all manner of competitors. Some have longer legs, some have better oxygen processing and certainly there is some impact to the training. Ultimately though, there is no way to create an entirely even competition and while attempts to do such may be reasonable if explored thoroughly, these should never jeopardize a reasonable safety, especially when these efforts don’t even produce the results they seek.

Now, as a totally blind runner I do believe anyone with sight of any level may have some advantages over me. I even believe there’s merit to noting the impact of being any level of blind versus fully sighted. I absolutely want the opportunity to compete and remain in full support of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) protecting reasonable accommodation and full access to events. I similarly acknowledge that if any race attempted to separate every possible and reasonable category of fair play we’d have so many divisions and so many awards we might very well inhibit the existence of the many races which are one of the great experiences of our present world.

So how do we find balance and reasonable compromise to allow all these things? For me, the answer requires that the simple word “reasonable” always be at the root of any decision. In all the many responses by those involved, I have yet to hear one even remotely reasonable justification for putting athletes at risk. I’ve run and competed with full sight through partial sight to total blindness and do so safely in all of those conditions. During the times of transition I was at the most risk and struggled the most to be safe. The real purpose of competition is always to challenge ourselves to be the best we can possibly be and to raise that bar for ourselves. We cannot ever accomplish this when we deliberately and with disregard make people what they are not.

Good luck to Aaron and his cause!

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Touch Screens: Accessible, Usable, Astounding

by Randy Pierce

“No offense, Randy, but how in the world are you going to use a touch screen given your total blindness?” I’ve heard that question a few times already, despite barely owning my iPhone for a week, and still the truth is even more amazing than I anticipated! Touch screen technology has not enhanced the barriers but has instead introduced an entirely new and powerful means of accessibility.

Adaptive Technology is a mixed blessing in that the powerful options are incredible, but so too is the cost, given the restricted market for such things. Speech technology has added thousands of dollars to the cost of items in the past, yet as our world of technology strives toward “eyes-free” for the benefit of drivers, (primarily) the results are clear. In the case of my iPhone, accessibility and usability are both highly available using just the pre-installed features! No additional cost is fantastic, but the reality of the potential is the greater achievement. The Android platform is not far behind, though full accessibility is not present with their Talk Back program. The expectations have been set, however, and most devices will begin to come standard with this new approach.

Randy using his new iPhone

Voice Over is the installed accessibility feature on every iPhone (Settings, General, Accessibility), which converts the phone to a means of interacting non-visually. Touch any point on the screen and the phone speaks the name of the Icon or feature present at that location. A single finger flick, left or right, and it advances through the options back and forth with ease. There’s a vast array of easy-to-learn hand gestures that bring the power of the product to life. Even the on-screen, touch-typing keyboard seems a quickly learned and mastered process! The impressive number of accessible applications can quickly enhance the device as a money reader, text scanner, color identifier, and GPS system – at no or minimal additional costs.

I spent a bit more than a month following some online discussions about the product before making the plunge, as my previous Smartphone slowly began to fail me. As such, I found the learning curve tremendously quick and discovered the most powerful aspect of this new technology. As a blind person, the delivery of information is always linear through a screen reader. We get an intricately displayed visual page as a series of single points without any appreciation for the impact of the layout. I may be told that a row across the top has a list of headline options, or similarly, a column down either side of the screen, but understanding the reason for the layout has previously been lost upon me. Things are placed with a prominence, which has meaning for usability. Now, due to the touch screen alerting of actual location points, a blind user can benefit from the size and location of any item in a way that is very close to a sighted user’s experience. We can also skip the fine print with ease just like our sighted counterparts. Do you think that’s a small detail? Imagine the clutter all across your Facebook page and how quickly your eye can focus on the significant details. Finally, we have a means to do so, and it’s all built into this powerful device!

It would be an extensive report to share all of the power and revolutionary change brought to us by this advance in technology. I’ll spare that extensive detail for this post and note that many of my blind and sighted contacts shared my apprehension on the accessibility of touch screen technology. As with nearly everything, awareness, education, and exploration have demonstrated that change, in this instance, may indeed be a tremendous benefit!

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Quinn and the Crew Summit Cannon

by Randy Pierce

The day was a fantastic story of achievement for both Quinn and me. Cannon was a two-day planning event for both 2020 Vision Quest and Powderhouse Productions. They had heard of the inspirational work of the Mighty Quinn and wanted to film it for an inspiring project of their own. The interesting catch is that the film crew had precious little hiking experience, but they really wanted their final day of filming to involve hiking one of the 48 with us.

We filmed all day on Wednesday in Nashua, and then made a trip to Hidden Valley Campground where I gave a presentation to a group of boy scouts while they filmed. I learned a few things about their 14-member production crew during this time. I was very confident that they were capturing some quality footage, which was encouraging. However, the crew had difficulty keeping within desired time constraints – this would be a significant concern to me in our attempt on Cannon.

The latter concern escalated as they moved the trailhead departure time from my requested 7:00am to 8:00am, and then for a variety of production reasons, failed to arrive at the trailhead until well after 9:00am. In fact, the film crew was not actually ready to hike until after 10:00am. Time is among the biggest challenges for our success, and I’d given up over three hours of time already. Though this was an earnest attempt at Cannon, we decided to untypically allow the time impact within all reasonable safety levels. To ensure full comfort in this approach, I had asked both our 2020 hiking manager, Carrie McMillen, and UNH Professor of Outdoor Education, Brent Bell, to join us in undertaking the hike.

As we began the hike, the crew’s prior level of appreciation for Quinn was dwarfed by his astounding work on the trail. I mostly walked with our celebrity host, Ethan, as he watched us work and asked many questions about our progress. We repeated certain stretches to help the camera work, and often paused for the more poignant questions to get full impact on film. The crew was working hard to manage the trail with their equipment, and by the time we hit Lonesome Lake, it was clear that many of the crew would not continue onward with us. We all had lunch just past the impressive bog rails we had traversed around the lake. During lunch, we adjusted the plan; we would continue up with a small camera and sound crew, while the rest of the crew would hike down to take the tram and meet us at the summit.

The trail from Lonesome Lake to Kinsman Ridge is steep and has some good staircase work, which is actually an area where Quinn and I are strong. It was slippery and moderately challenging, with plenty of great opportunities for the film work. Now, the group was small enough that the bonding of the group began to develop in earnest. As we reached the Kinsman Ridge Trail, it leveled briefly at the col between the Cannon Ball and Cannon. The next .2 miles were very steep with hard scrabble, and everyone needed all four limbs for hiking. Due to this terrain, Quinn went off duty, and I managed it with the guidance of the sounds of a person ahead of me.

It was slow going and hard climbing, even for Quinn. This wasn’t our hardest challenge to date but it was a solid stretch of work. Our halts for camera time were reduced to ensure we’d achieve the summit in time. As we finished that section and Quinn returned to me, we made great time to the summit. Again, more film crew pauses held us for nearly an hour more. However, it was fantastic for their story and well worth the time spent – but it also removed any chance of our making a descent. This hike was about the production company getting their story – there was no failure on our end. We actually still felt strong and energized enough to undertake a descent, but we didn’t have enough time to make it reasonable. I was also skeptical that any of the film crew had the strength or energy reserves to continue. Instead, we all took the Tram down in an astounding 7-minute ride.

I learned more about working with Quinn on this hike, I have many new perspectives from the film work, and I became familiarized with Cannon Mountain. This increases my interest in returning and experiencing the mountain more fully with an official 2020 hike and a complete summit ascent and descent. In the meanwhile, I know there’s a fantastic story on film, and I look forward to being able to share more details with you soon.

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