August 22, 2019

Tragic Fiction Come to Life

A 1961 Kurt Vonnegut short story, Harrison Bergeron, begins with these words,

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United State Handicapper General.

The story of Harrison continues:

Harrison Bergeron …had just escaped from jail where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous. A police photograph of Harrison was flashed on the screen—-upside down, then sideways, upside down again, then right side up. The picture showed the full length of Harrison against a background calibrated in feet and inches. He was seven feet tall.
The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever borne heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G (Handicapper General) men could think them up. Instead of a little car radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.

I hadn’t read Harrison Bergeron in decades, but I couldn’t help thinking about it yesterday as I read the story of Aaron Scheidies, who, like Harrison is “an athlete and is under-handicapped”; except for one thing, he is legally blind.  Scheidies has won six world championships and seven national titles in triathlon events. He also holds a doctorate in physical therapy. He has been ranked the number one “physically challenged athlete in the world.  Scheidies lost his vision as a result of macular degeneration.

For non-sports followers, the triathlon is a variety of distance events that include swimming, cycling and running. They vary in distance from the “Sprint” (a 750 meter swim, a 20 kilometer bike race, and a 5 kilometer run) to an “Ultra” (2.3 mile swim, 100 mile bike race, and a 26 mile marathon run).

According to a friend who has competed alongside him in triathlons, Scheidies is a world class athlete—vision or no. He swims and bikes and runs tethered to a sighted person (they often have to be replaced during a race because one aide simply couldn’t keep up with Scheidies).

Scheidies may not be able to compete as a triathlete any more.

USA Triathlon (the body that oversees all triathlons in the US) now requires that all visually impaired athletes wear “black out” glasses

which eliminate any visual perception they might retain


These glasses make the wearer completely blind

USA Triathlon asserts that using the blackout glasses “levels the playing field” for the visually impaired.

Scheidies has some vision, as do 85% of the visually impaired. Eliminating what bit of vision they have leaves them, literally, in the dark. As the Oakland Press reported, “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 described his attempt at running with black out glasses, “I tried to use black out glasses once, 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 to disorienting. I felt like I was intoxicated.”

Notwithstanding his and other blind athletes’ complaints, USA Triathlon (justifying their mystifying rule as having been imposed by the International Triathlon Union) persists in planning to impose this bizarre rule. Schiedies plans to file suit against USA Triathlon.

One would hope that if a competitor qualifies as legally blind—-just as a man or woman qualifies as a male or female or for an age bracket—-that would be a sufficient. These are threshold requirements that determine the athlete’s relevant competitive cohort. There should be no further effort to promote “equality” (i.e. 40% blind can’t compete against 65% blind, obese people can’t compete against slender folks). Some blind people see more, others see less. Some athletes have greater lung capacity some have less. That’s how life and the world work, that’s what competition is about.

Hopefully, USA Triathlon will see the absurdity of their position, change the rule and tell the international body it is wrong. If not, a rational court ought to do it for them.

This should have a better ending than Harrison Bergeron—-he was killed by the Handicapper General for being too full of “joy and grace” and not following the rules.