By Jerry Wolffe of the Oakland Press, follow him on Twitter @JerryWolffe1 or on Facebook.
Aaron Scheidies’ quest for another national championship in the grueling triathlon race is at risk because of a rule requiring the visually impaired athlete to wear “black out” glasses.
Scheidies, 29, of Farmington, is a professional triathlete with a doctorate in physical therapy and winner of six world championships and seven national ones in triathlon events.
He was hoping to win another U.S. title in the Aug. 7 triathlon in New York City but he and the other 30 visually impaired or blind athletes who compete in his category, TRI 6, have seen their hopes darkened by the “black out” glasses rule passed by the governing body, USA Triathlon of Colorado Springs, Colo., in March 2010.
The rule requires them to wear “black out glasses” during the running part of a triathlon, leaving them completely in the dark by eliminating any visual perception they might retain.
“This is absurd,” said Farmington Hills attorney Richard Bernstein, who also is blind, a marathon runner and a triathlete.
Bernstein plans to file a discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act in U.S. District Court on Scheidies’ behalf against USA Triathlon unless the organization immediately eliminates the rule. Scheidies is not seeking monetary damages.
“Taking away the little vision anyone has left by making them wear black out glasses is dangerous, absurd, and undoubtedly illegal,” Bernstein said. “It certainly is no accommodation.”
The rule effectively puts any visually impaired competitor in a dangerous situation because it erases their lifetime of knowledge of learning how to use whatever light perception they might have to navigate in the world, Scheidies said.
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “I know the human body and how it works. This is so dangerous because it leaves anyone with a visual impairment completely out of his or her element.
“I tried to use black out glasses once,” Scheidies said. “The first time I put them over my eyes, I hit my head on a fence within a minute.
“Even though I had a guide, I then fell into a ditch and ran off the road multiple times because it was so disorienting,” he said. “It felt like I was very intoxicated.”
The USA Triathlon “does not even allow triathletes to wear headphones because of potential danger,” he said. “However, they require visually impaired people to have no vision whatsoever.”
Scheidies and other visually impaired triathletes protested the rule requiring them to wear black out glasses in New York late last year at the national championships for para-athletes but the USA Triathlon “refused to hear our voices calling for some understanding and disqualified from the national championship,” he said.
The USA Triathlon contends the blackout glasses rule “levels the playing field” for Paralympians with visual impairments.
USA Triathlon Director of Marketing & Communications Chuck Menke said, “We are not aware of any complaint or action being taken in this regard, and therefore are unable to comment.”
Menke added, “As a point of clarification, the ‘black out glasses’ rule is an International Triathlon Union rule (16.14.i) which USA Triathlon is obliged to enforce as a member federation.”
Not all blind people have no visual perception.
“Maybe 85 percent of the visually impaired like me have some vision,” Scheidies said.
Scheidies, who says he became depressed as he lost his sight from macular degeneration, regained his confidence when he found he excelled at swimming, biking and running that make up a triathlon.
At Farmington High School, he was an elite athlete before his sight deteriorated. He lettered in swimming four times, three times in cross-country and twice in track.
“Mobility is taught differently depending upon the visual capacity an individual has,” Scheidies said.
“What the USA Triathlon has done with this rule is create an incredibly dangerous situation and pretty much ended my professional career if this rule is not eliminated.”
In years past, Scheidies was ranked the No. 1 “physically challenged” triathlete in the world and holds world records for the fastest times in two triathlon distances.
He has been a professional triathlete for three years.
Bernstein, who is handling the case pro bono, said under the ADA, Scheidies is a qualified individual with a disability entitled to a reasonable accommodation, but the accommodation the USA Triathlon requires is “ridiculous.”
“It is illegal to require him to wear blackout glasses that no able-bodied person would have to wear as a condition of receiving a reasonable accommodation in a triathlon,” Bernstein said.
“(By requiring black out glasses to be worn) … USA triathlon is discriminating against legally blind competitors, stripping them of their dignity and depriving them of participating in the sport they love.
“USA Triathlon will face consequences in federal court for its actions if it does not immediately cease this illegal conduct,” Bernstein said.
“Aaron will run in that Aug. 7 triathlon race without being exposed to great danger,” he added. “Either USA triathlon will immediately eliminate this illegal rule itself or we will ask a federal judge to do that for them. The choice is theirs and the clock is ticking.”