Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Athletes with Disabilities: Safety Considerations

More and more physically challenged athletes are participating in traditional running events. Requests for entries for wheelchairs, handcycles, and “pushers” continue to increase. Renowned wheelchair athlete Craig Blanchette a former Olympian and pioneer in wheelchair racing, sued race owner Competitor Group, Inc. for gross negligence due to an injury at the 2014 Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon because race organizers altered the course without notifying him. A San Diego jury awarded him $4 million this week. Blanchette said that race organizers changed a portion of the course the morning of the race, on 11th Avenue near B Street, and did not inform him.

Some events do not allow wheelchair or handbikes in their events due to safety and security concerns. This note is from the Footlevers Blue Ridge Marathon website:

The Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon course is designed as a road running course. Multiple athletes with disabilities have inquired over the years about completing “America’s Toughest Road Marathon” using handcycles and wheelchairs. In 2014, organizers permitted a trial run of the half marathon course with two athletes with disabilities using handcycles. One athlete was a pro handcyclist, and the other was a recreational handcyclist. After observations of the athletes on the course and feedback from the athletes, it was decided that having an open field of handcyclists would not be safe for the race, given the course layout, extreme terrain, and that steep portions of the course are not fully closed to vehicular traffic. Organizers have also consulted with professional wheelchair racers, and these athletes indicated that the grades on the course are too dangerous for safe competition of racing wheelchairs.

USATF provides guidance and has provisions in place for Athletes with Disabilities to compete in wheelchairs; however, USATF does not accommodate handcycles in competition. USATF has a very specific policy designed to assist race directors so they can deal with the complex questions surrounding disabled athlete participation. Members of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) should refer to the USATF policy on Americans with Disablities Act (ADA).

In 1979, the RRCA published “Guidelines for Wheelchair Athletes.” The purpose of these guidelines is to provide information for event directors and athletes. Hopefully, these guidelines will facilitate the inclusion of athletes with disabilities in road racing events and foster discussions among event directors, members of the disabled community, law enforcement and public safety personnel and others involved with a particular event. The guidelines are not intended to cover all events or situations.

While the safety of all participants in a running event remains the paramount concern of any event director, these guidelines will help event directors focus on real safety concerns related to a specific disability and not concerns based on false perceptions, stereotypes or generalizations about athletes with disabilities.

Pushing disabled athletes in a sport chair has become more and more popular. From time to time, RRCA members have struggled with having a “no stroller” policy and complying with ADA accommodations for events. If the persons seeking to enter the event meet any age restrictions placed on participation, then the event needs to make reasonable accommodations to allow a disabled athlete to be pushed in a wheelchair in the event by an able-bodied participant. This is in accordance with providing access to the event. Race organizers need to make decisions regarding registration of one or both athletes.

Should age restrictions apply as they do with able-bodied athletes? How do race organizers inform participants of terrain concerns or undesirable or non-negotiable terrain for a wheelchair? Concerns also include hairpin turns, elevations greater than 10% and steep hills that may increase speeds greater than 20 mph.

Recently the Marine Corps Marathon was informed by law enforcement agencies that wheelchair and handcyclists MUST have a reflective flag that is 4-6 feet in height to allow for visibility of the athletes in crowds. The MCM will be sending these athletes the information and requirements. What happens if the athlete shows at the starting line without the flag? Should they be pulled? Is it the responsibility of race organizers to place a flag on their equipment prior to the start?

What about requests for service animals to participate in events? Should organizers add veterinary professionals to the support staff?

These topics seem to be the third rail in many circles but it behooves all events to have the discussions to share their policies and better inform and work with athletes with disabilities to encourage fitness and participation where possible.

What are your thoughts? How do you interact with these athletes?