Legally Blind Champion Triathlete Sues Over Rules That Would Blind Him Further

Aaron Scheidies started losing his vision as a child. As his vision worsened from his juvenile macular degeneration, to the point of legal blindness, he said he spun into a deep depression that included contemplating suicide.

One of the reason Scheidies says he’s alive today is because of his love for triathlons.

“Triathlons took away my disability,” said Scheidies, who became a seven-time world-champion triathlete.

This Sunday, Scheidies will be competing goggle-free in the Motor City Triathlon in Detroit. If it were a championship competition, he would be disqualified, since he refuses to wear “Blackout Goggles,” a stipulation made by The International Triathlon Union and followed by USA Triathlon, presumably to even out the playing field among blind competitors.

Triathlons moved to a single blindness category among competitors instead of the three levels of vision impairment it had previously specified.

“I don’t know one person who thinks that disabling someone more levels the playing field,” said Scheidies, who filed a lawsuit against USA Triathlon, ITU and 3-D Racing, which is putting on the race this weekend.

Aside from being demoralizing and illegal, Scheidies argues that further blinding blind competitors is completely unsafe for him and everyone else competing around him.

“They make rules saying you can’t wear headphones because it’s unsafe if you can’t hear the people around you,” Scheidies said. “So they basically say, it’s not okay to be deaf. But then they throw on goggles to make someone blind and it’s not a safety issue?”

Scheidies, who is represented by Richard Bernstein, a lawyer who also has also competed in triathlons and has been blind since birth, is not seeking any compensation. All he wants is for the rules, which he says continue to violate the American Disability Act, to be changed.

“The federal law simply will not allow for someone to be forced to be more disabled in order to compete,” Bernstein said.

Tensions have heated up in recent weeks between the two parties. After USA Triathlon failed to show up in court and a default judgment was entered for Scheidies, the USAT team came back to the court saying that their liaison failed to identify the papers that they were served with as legal documents.

USA Triathlon has filed a motion to ask the judge to set aside the default judgment, and in the meantime, has attempted to answer the suit. In its response, USA Triathlon says that it doesn't believe that its goggles policy is discriminatory. The organization's position is that the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which provides that athletic eligibility disputes be resolved by the US Olympic Committee only through arbitration, completely compromises Scheidies' ability to sue them under the American Disabilities Act. They further deny that the “Blackout Goggles” can cause physical injury and lead to emotional distress.

“USA Triathlon is aware of the recent actions taken by Aaron Scheidies, and we continue to examine the issue of blackout glasses in conjunction with the International Triathlon Union (ITU),” said Chuck Menke, director of marketing and communications, in a statement provided to CNBC.

"The ‘blackout glasses’ rule was implemented globally in 2010 while charging member federations, such as USA Triathlon, with an obligation to enforce.”

“As a point of clarification, the blackout glasses rule only impacts visually impaired athletes who attempt to qualify for, and compete in, the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships. All other athletes racing domestically have the option to compete without the blackout glasses in USATriathlon’s Physically Challenged Division. The Physically Challenged Division was developed, in part, out of concerns from visually impaired paratriathletes about potentially being required to wear blackout glasses on the run portion of USA Triathlon-sanctioned events,” the statement said.

In 2010, Scheidies competed in “Blackout Goggles” and said he ran into a table and grabbed a volunteer’s chest instead of the water she was holding. Last year, although he was tethered to his guide, the glasses resulted in him knocking in to at least 10 competitors, Scheidies said.

“For my entire life, I’ve learned how to adapt to the vision that I do have and now they want to take that away from me and others,” Scheidies said. “If I can’t compete at a high level with what I have, I’m just going to quit.”

Scheidies competed in USA Triathlon's Para Triathlon National Championship in Austin on May 28. After Scheidies won the event, he was disqualified for not wearing "Blackout Goggles," and he has subsequently lost his right to advance to the 2012 World Para Triathlon Championship in October.

Bernstein, who is representing Scheidies pro bono, says if the judge agrees to undo the judgment, he intends to amend his complaint.

“If the default is set aside, I’m going to ask for an immediate injunction to put a stop to all triathlons because of the safety concerns associated with these goggles,” Bernstein said. “I’m also going to sue any organizer that puts on any triathlon in conjunction with USA Triathlon.”

As Scheidies tries to defend himself against what he thinks is a violation of the American Disabilities Act, golfer Casey Martin will be able to ride a golf cart while he competes in the US Open this week, thanks to the Supreme Court decision in his favor in 2001. Seven of the nine judges found that a golf course was a public place and therefore could not make rules that sidestep the American Disabilities Act.

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