Shedding light on blackout goggles

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Recently, we received an update from Be the Changer Matt Miller’s (’98) C-Different Foundation, an organization that assists visually impaired athletes to live active lives through sports. Not only is Matt advocating on behalf of these athletes, he is addressing some new sports regulations, which are detrimental to their success. Although Matt can’t declare total victory yet, he and the C Different Foundation are making significant inroads. I am inspired by what Matt and his organization are doing.  I think you will be, too, so I wanted to share this story from Matt’s newsletter…..

Blacking Out Blackout Goggles

(from the C Different newsletter, September 2010)

On May 1, 2010 the national and international governing bodies of the sport of triathlon began enforcing a new rule whereby all blind and visually impaired athletes wishing to be considered for national and international competition recognition must wear blackout goggles or face automatic disqualification from competition.  Shortly thereafter, world champion triathlete, Aaron Scheidies, was disqualified from a race where he was not wearing the blackout goggles.  The rule, it was argued, would enable blind and visually impaired triathletes of various visual acuity to compete on the same level which would attract more blind and visually impaired athletes to the sport in turn raising the percentages for triathlon to become a Paralympic sport in the near future.  Those who opposed the rule sited the increased potential for physical injuries during competition suffered by blind and visually impaired triathletes, their guides and other racers.  Furthermore, it was belittling, minimizing and discriminating. Either way, the governing bodies had acted and now it was time for the C Different Foundation to take the lead in reacting.  C Different founder, Matt Miller, put out the clarion call to blind and visually impaired athletes, guides, and supporters to stand up in solidarity against this rule by agreeing to participate in the New York City Triathlon. The C Different Foundation athletes would race in this event, but would not wear the blackout goggles as a form of polite protest.  Many experienced triathletes jumped on board immediately.  Some athletes who had never raced in a triathlon or never even considered it decided to make their debut in this event.  Triathletes who were busy preparing for other races including Ironman triathlons felt this stand against a discriminating rule was too important not to answer the call.  Jan Ditchfield put together a Canadian contingency to bring to the event.  As the number of blind and visually impaired triathletes agreeing to race grew so did the demand to find sighted guides, tandem bicycles and other equipment.  In total, 31 blind and visually impaired triathletes from the United States and Canada registered to race.  They and their guides swam, biked and ran countless hours in preparation for the triathlon.  Triathletes, guides and supporters volunteered to help the C Different Foundation with the logistics of arranging transportation, equipment and housing for the pending significant stand on the approaching July weekend.

New York City was the stage and 62 triathletes from two countries representing one foundation with a sole purpose were the players set to swim one mile in the Hudson River, bike 25 miles along Henry Hudson Highway, and run 6.2 miles around and into famed Central Park.  Aaron Scheidies, Patricia Walsh, Mark Griffin, Annie Young, Darwin Doose.  From the experienced elite to the nervous novice, all converged on the city which never sleeps to say we will not rest until the blackout goggles form of discrimination is eliminated.  When a major event occurs in New York, people take notice.  They certainly did. At the airports, in restaurants, and on the streets, New Yorkers were curious about the large group of tandem bicycles, wet suits and race jerseys.  Many of them had never met a blind or visually impaired person and did not know they raced in triathlons, but were extremely supportive and stated the rule was ridiculous and should be changed.  Leading up to the triathlon and throughout the weekend, newspaper articles, radio stories, and television segments were dedicated to shining a light on the rule’s impact on the blind and visually impaired as well as the steps which the C Different Foundations athletes and volunteers had taken to denounce it.

How does it feel to be different than me? Are we the same? C Different athletes have different eye conditions, visual acuity, and stories.  Each has travelled down a different path to arrive at the same point in time sitting shoulder to shoulder on the pier preparing to jump into the Hudson River.  As Israel Antonio called upon his past NYC experience to help calm Annie Young’s nerves, Mark Griffin and Aaron Scheidies were voicing their support and confidence in Israel’s ability to get through his toughest challenge, the swim portion.  Once in the water, his guide, Brendan Hermes’ steady calming influence enabled Israel to glide through the Hudson River cutting his swim time finish by over 60 percent from his previous time.  The only scary moment being when the rope connecting Israel and Brendan, slid down from Israel’s waist to his knees trapping his legs together making it impossible to kick.  Luckily, Brendan noticed and as both men continued to move through the river, Brendan was able to free Israel’s legs.  Meanwhile, Aaron Scheidies and Matt West experienced a moment of anxiety when someone swam through their tether ripping it and causing them to lose sight of each other.  Aaron pressed on blindly through the water and was quickly rejoined by Matt as they coasted to the finish, on to the bike, then the run portion where Aaron balanced an obligation to his sponsors by wearing blackout goggles so that he may remain eligible to qualify for the World Championships while displaying his personal dislike for the blackout goggles rule by walking the entire ten kilometers in protest.  Other athletes and guides joined Aaron and Matt walking along side them in solidarity.  Patricia Walsh and her guide, Caroline Gaynor, rolled to a very comfortable victory by 25 minutes to their nearest competitor.

Matt Miller and the entire C Different Foundation family claimed victory when USAT officials had a meeting with Matt where he was able to express the feelings and concerns of the blind and visually impaired over the blackout goggles. USAT officials admitted they were unaware of how many blind and visually impaired triathletes compete in their events, but the strong showing at the New York City Triathlon, which serves as the PC National Championships, opened their eyes.  As a result, they have agreed not to uphold the blackout goggles any more.  Unfortunately, for the time being, the rule does remain in place for international sanctioned events for world championship consideration. Wherever there are rules and mindsets yet unchanged which discriminate, the C Different Foundation athletes, guides, and volunteers will be there speaking and displaying that blackout goggles do not hurt a race category or a list of names on a page.  Rather, they hurt real human beings who are simply looking for an equal chance to race and be accepted as individuals.

– Israel Antonio

Read more about Matt here: http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/people/millerMatt.shtml and at his new C Different website: http://cdifferent.org/

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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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