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Partially blind triathlete sues over requirement he wear blackout glasses

By Philip Rosenbaum, CNN
April 30, 2012 -- Updated 1936 GMT (0336 HKT)
Triathlete Aaron Scheidies, 30, is suing over a rule that makes vison-impaired runners wear blackout glasses.
Triathlete Aaron Scheidies, 30, is suing over a rule that makes vison-impaired runners wear blackout glasses.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Scheidies, a 30-year-old triathlete, has only 20% of his vision
  • He's suing three triathlon groups over requirement he wear blackout glasses
  • Partially blind runners compete in same group as totally blind runners, groups say
  • Scheidies on competing with the glasses: "It was so scary and brought tears to my eyes"

New York (CNN) -- A legally blind athlete is suing three triathlon groups over a rule that makes him and other vision-impaired runners wear blackout glasses -- leaving them temporarily sightless -- in a controversial effort to "level the playing field.''

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by Aaron Scheidies, a 30-year-old athlete. Scheidies says the rule violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Having a legally blind person compete in the running portion of a triathlon with blackout glasses "poses substantial danger to not only the competitor but those around them,'' the complaint says.

"It is illegal to require Aaron to wear blackout glasses that no able-bodied person would have to wear as a condition of receiving reasonable accommodation in a triathlon,'' said Richard Bernstein, Scheidies' lawyer.

Read a PDF file of Aaron Scheidies' lawsuit

The complaint names USA Triathlon and The International Triathlon Union, both governing bodies for triathlons, and 3-D Racing, an organizer and sponsor.

The glasses, which thrust wearers into darkness, have been required for sight-challenged athletes running in triathlons overseen by the defendants since 2010, according to Bernstein.

"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,'' says Bernstein, who has been blind since birth.

Arguing the policy makes no sense, Bernstein says triathlons forbid athletes from wearing headphones because the devices reduce awareness of surroundings, endangering others.

Scheidies has about 20% of his vision. He has been losing sight since he was 9 because of Stargardt's disease, which his website calls the most common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration. The ailment has significantly impaired Scheidies' central vision, and he sees mostly in blurs aside from some peripheral sight.

"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,'' the International Triathlon Union said in a statement to CNN.com, adding that the glasses must be worn only during the running portion, not in the swimming or biking events.

ITU says it is designing a new classification system for disabled athletes and ''the elimination of the blackout glasses rule was proposed for 2012 but couldn't be done'' without that rule already in place.

"ITU is committed to having the new system ready by 2013, which will result in a full revision of the ITU competition rules,'' said the Vancouver, British Columbia-based group, which is the triathlon world governing body for more than 140 affiliated national federations worldwide, including USA Triathlon.

Scheidies says ITU and USA Triathlon have made promises on this before and he doubts change will come anytime soon.

Voicemails and e-mails seeking comment from Colorado City, Colorado-based USA Triathlon and 3-D Racing, headquartered in Detroit, have not yet been returned.

"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,'' Scheidies said, as he recalled a practice run.

"It was so scary and brought tears to my eyes. I felt defeated and less of a human being," said Scheidies, a Seattle-area physical therapist with a doctorate in the field. After last year's New York City Triathlon, where he wore the blackout glasses in accordance with the rule, Scheidies said he apologized to several others for running into them.

Scheidies says he doesn't buy the argument that the blackout glasses ''level the playing field'' between runners who have some sight and those who have none. He says he has proposed workarounds, including winner groups based on level of sight.

Another idea he's put forward is to adjust running times, something akin to a sports handicap. His efforts to get a visually impaired person on rule-making committees have been rebuffed.

"They're obviously not pro-inclusion for blind people,'' Scheidies said.

People who have chosen not to wear the blackout glasses have been disqualified from races for not following regulations, according to Scheidies. He says he has been trying to work with triathlon organizers since the rule was enacted and held a protest with 30 other blind people in August in New York.

Scheidies, who has completed the Ironman Triathlon, which includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2 mile marathon, registered for Detroit's Motor City Triathlon on June 17. He says he will not take part if required to wear the glasses.

Scheidies, who says the lawsuit is his last resort, is not seeking monetary damages but reserves the right to in the complaint.

"This rule neglects the single most important factor in overcoming a disability,'' he said, ''accommodation and adaptation."

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