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How to Make Triathlon More Accessible for Athletes With Disabilities

Every body should be able to access and enjoy triathlon.

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For many coaches, shops, clubs, and races, accessibility is an afterthought—something that only gets addressed when a person with a disability requests an accommodation. This is likely because triathlon doesn’t seem to be the most obvious place for people with disabilities.

“One of the biggest misconceptions I hear is that it’s not possible,” said Johnny Agar, founder of accessibility app Johnny’s Pass and a triathlete born with Cerebral Palsy. “They say, ‘It’s extremely hard for able-bodied athletes to participate in triathlons, how is someone with a disability ever going to be able to take on the challenge?!”

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In reality, people with disabilities can—and do—swim, bike, and run, yet triathlon doesn’t always account for these athletes. A triathlon club, for example, may host a virtual clinic for its members over Zoom, but without captioning (where any speech on the video is typed at the bottom of the screen), hearing-impaired members may feel left out. Coaches, shops, and races may set up websites that look great but are not compatible with screen readers for the blind. A wheelchair user may be assured a swim, bike, and run course is accessible, only to arrive at the event and find there is no clear path to get from their vehicle to the transition area.

Most think of accessibility only in relation to disability, yet accessibility is all about creating products and services that are usable by all people, whether they have a disability or not. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, for example, aren’t the only ones who benefit from closed-captions or transcripts; many hearing individuals use them to gain clarity. Thinking ahead of the barriers triathletes may face allows for the removal of those barriers.

“Accessibility is really about creating opportunity,” explained Terence Reuben, President and Co-Founder of MyTeamTriumph, a nationwide organization that enables people with special needs to participate in endurance sports. “Not only do athletes with disabilities get to experience an event with other athletic peers, but they serve as strong motivators to all participants. Acceptance and access to races give participants with disabilities a voice.”

To provide equal access and equal opportunity to triathletes with disabilities, it’s important to take disabilities into account when creating and designing triathlon experiences. Instead of waiting for an athlete to request accessibility, it’s important to be proactive in creating a sport that is truly for every body.

Accessibility Checklist

Though this is not a comprehensive list, these basic steps can help address some of the most common barriers to accessibility in triathlon. (Note that we at Triathlete have implemented most, but not all, of these guidelines, and have plans in place to improve our own accessibility.)

Designate a point person. Agar said that even though accessibility should be interwoven into your organization’s ethos, at least one person should be the key contact person who is knowledgeable on accessibility issues. This allows for a streamlined process for those with accessibility requests. This person can also coordinate additional help when needed, such as dedicated volunteers at a race to help triathletes with mobility impairments with equipment and transfers.

Scan the environment. Whether it’s a race, a shop, or a meetup location for a group ride, do your recon. Undertake a review of the accessibility of facilities, including car parking, toilets, changing facilities, access to buildings and other facilities to consider their accessibility for athletes. “Check the terrain, and make sure participants are aware of more difficult terrain, like gravel, fields, sand, or mud,” Agar recommended. “Note where there are road crossings, especially for deaf or blind triathletes.”

Build accessibility into the layout. In a shop or meeting, that might mean ensuring there is enough space for wheelchair users to navigate. In a race, that may mean a dedicated area for equipment to be stowed/accessed without disrupting flow to other participants. “Ideally, the transition area should be large enough to accommodate at least a 10×10 tent to protect special race equipment, such as wheelchairs and handcycles, from the sun,” said Reuben. “Larger space may be needed, should you have multiple teams or should a trailer or additional tents need to be added in the transition area.” Reuben also recommended providing space at the water entrance and exit to stage any equipment, such as hearing aids or prosthetic limbs.

Make sure your website is accessible to all users. Accessibility is often overlooked in website design, despite being a legal requirement. Most countries have some kind of legal standard around accessibility requirements. These federal accessibility guidelines detail the web accessibility rules to which companies must comply. The core standards:

  • Add alt text to your images, audio, video, and controls
  • Avoid color references in text, like instructing users to click a green button
  • Disable auto-play for audio and video
  • Use proper HTML
  • Ensure site functionality with the “Tab” key for visitors who cannot use a mouse or trackpad

Provide captioning or transcripts for recorded material. Whether it’s a video ad on social media or a podcast episode, having the information in written form allows users with hearing impairments to receive the information provided. In videoconferencing environments, such as virtual club meetings or coaching clinics, opt for platforms with live captions (like Google Meet).

Offer multiple ways to get in touch. Don’t provide only a phone number or email address; at the very least, offer a minimum of two ways people can get in touch. If someone contacts you using one method, don’t suggest moving to another (replying to an email from a hearing-impaired person with a request to call on the phone, for example).

Consider accessibility in your rules and policies. “If a physically disabled participant is paired with an able-bodied athlete as a team, waive the minimum age requirements for the disabled participant, as they will be fully led through the race by an abled bodied athlete who meets all the criteria expected by all other athletes,” said Reuben. Events may also consider waiving “outside assistance” rules for athletes who need sign language interpreters or assistance with equipment in transition.

Give others a heads-up when appropriate. A triathlete’s disability doesn’t need to be broadcast to every athlete, volunteer, and spectator ahead of time. However, the appropriate officials should be notified. Make sure the medical team is aware of participants with disabilities on the course, so they are adequately prepared to handle any emergencies if needed. Ensure any SAG vehicles are able to pick up any stranded disabled participant off the course, along with their equipment (if needed).

Race with, not alongside. Outside of the accommodations made for disability, the race should “provide as normal of a race feel with race packets, race numbers, timing, medals, and official results,” Reuben advised. Athletes with disabilities aren’t asking to participate in an event parallel to the so-called “real” thing. The key to accessibility is integration, where all athletes get to be a part of the event.

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