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!