My Reaction: Paratriathlete Sues USAT
Last week it was widely reported that Aaron Scheidies, a blind triathlete from the USA, would be suing the US Triathlon governing body (USAT) for the implementation of the blackout rules for blind athletes. Under new International Triathlon Union (ITU) rules that are being implemented alongside of paratriathlon’s acceptance as a Paralympic sport, athletes that compete in the visually impaired category (TRI6) will be required to wear blackout glasses while competing.
You can read a pretty comprehensive overview of Scheidies case here. But to summarise, Scheidies will be relying on the Americans with Disabilities Act to argue that by requiring blackout glasses that USAT are not providing a reasonable accommodation for him as an athlete. He claims that the rule will end his professional career if not eliminated.
When I saw the story I relayed the link on my Twitter account. I was asked for my reaction. I also received reactions from other paratriathletes who I follow (I may add none of them are in the TRI6 or visually impaired category).
I guess people asked me for my reaction because I have written about my own paratriathlon classification experiences (part 1 on my classification here, part 2 on my classification here). And I was a vocal supporter of the 2016 Paratriathlon Paralympic bid.
But it is well known that classification (or qualifying) as a participant in para-sport is not straightforward - there was a great Radio 4 programme on this very issue. It is contentious. Darren Smith, a Canadian paratriathlete who has been on the podium representing his country, shared his experiences and frustrations with classification on this post. To paraphrase an exchange I had with a world champion paratriathlete, simply put, para-sport is unfair.
But is the blackout rule a case of more than unfairness, rather discrimination, manifested? Or is the blackout rule a situation in which fairness and the creation of a level playing field is being sought? Is it a way to “simplify” classification for blind athletes, by creating a simple overarching rule (“wear glasses”) which has instead an unintended and unsafe consequences that Scheidies claims? Are there other ways to create that level playing field? Why was the blackout rule determined to be the best way for visually impaired athletes to compete?
And what do blind triathletes think?
I must admit, I do not personally know any blind paratriathletes. So I wasn’t able to ask any for their thoughts.
I do follow Cathy Beadoin’s Cathy Beaudoin blog. On it she writes a short post mainly focused on how she is just grateful to participate in triathlon. She claims that as a “back of the packer” she doubts she’ll ever see the rule applied to her. But she also takes an analogy to show unfairness - with the limb classified athletes, for those with impaired limbs who are in the same category as those with prosthetics, would an equal treatment require equal amputations? Interesting perspective…
Para-sport is all about creating an environment in which athletes with challenges can compete in a level environment. But does level mean equal?
Scheidies is a great triathlete - he is super fast racing an Olympic distance triathlon (1500 m swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run) in less than 2 hours. He is a multiple champion. He is a role model to many (and up for an ESPN Excellence in Sports Performance Award or ESPY this year by the way, which recognises all of his achievements).
But in this case, at least from what has been reported, I think he is wrong.
First, USAT is implementing an ITU rule. Yes, by implementing it in the US, USAT must adhere to American laws. But is his complaint directed at the organisation that actually can address and solve the problem?
Second, I think he risks losing his role model status. I am not sure of his motivations, but if he is doing this to just to get his way (“USAT has pretty much ended my professional career if this rule is not eliminated”), it seems a bit extreme to me. If he is doing this to highlight the unfairness of disability sports, well… Surely he could make that point with his platform as an excellent athlete and not through the platform of the court system. I for one do not look up to people who use the court system as a first port of call - maybe the lawsuit is not his first way to attempt to change the rule, but if it is not he is doing nothing to counteract the impression that he is going straight for the jugular and into legal proceeding.
Finally, I believe there are better ways to try to fix problems. I believe that if he enlisted the advice and assistance of advocacy organisations, of doctors, of people who truly understand issues related to visual impairment, that he could lobby for change and work with the ITU (and USAT) for improvements. I think we win more kudos when we seek to work with people. Sure, it is time consuming, frustrating, and may at the end lead to no resolution. But to be a better advocate, in my eyes he needs to demonstrate that he walks his own talk - to paraphrase from his website, he needs to show that his way is a philosophy and a movement to break down barriers. Not just a hammer to smash things he doesn’t like.
I for one will be watching the outcome of this case, as it could have huge ripples throughout the world of para-sport.
Maybe that is the aim…