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There are More Triathletes With Disabilities Than You Realize: Making Your Race and Club Accessible

Six takeaways from the panel on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at the USAT Together We Thrive summit.

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At the USA Triathlon Together, We Thrive: Actions for Change Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access Summit, coaches, race directors, and triathletes gathered for a panel on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to discuss how to make triathlon more accessible for triathletes with disabilities.

The panel, moderated by Triathlete editor Susan Lacke, included Keri Serota, executive director of Dare2Tri and athletes with disabilities coordinator for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon; and Chris Murphy, ADA specialist with Rocky Mountain ADA Center, a member of the U.S. Paracycling National Team, and two-time Paralympian.

Attendees learned about common misconceptions of athletes with disabilities, and how to implement clubs and races  ADA compliant. Here are six takeaways.

Triathlon is inclusive—but that doesn’t always mean it’s accessible.

“Triathlon by design, and by its nature, is an inclusive sport,” Serota said. “It’s one of the few sports where you can have kids, adults, Masters-level athletes, first-timers, elite pros, paratriathletes all out there at the same time, battling the same elements, swimming, biking and running on the same courses.”

But even though the sport itself has the potential to welcome all athletes of all abilities, the physical reality of an event, location, or pre-race process can make that impossible. When we talk about accessibility in the context of disability, we’re talking about how a person with a disability has the right to experience an event as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability. In a race setting, that means removing the barriers to participating in the event.

“A lot of this world is just not built for people [with disabilities],” Murphy said. “Put yourself in the shoes of the person attending the event, as if you had a disability.” He used parking as a basic example. If you sign up for a road race as someone who uses a wheelchair, you’d expect the race itself to be on pavement. But what would your experience be like in getting to the start line? Would you have to roll over grass or gravel, which can be difficult to maneuver in a wheelchair? Are there any curbs that would block you from getting from the parking lot to the race start? Is there an accessible bathroom to use before the start of the race?

There are more athletes with disabilities than you probably realize.

When most people think of disabilities, they think of athletes with wheelchairs. But there are many kinds of disabilities, and not all are visible. The ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” This definition encompasses a variety of disabilities, such as:

  • Mobility impairments
  • Partial or completely missing limbs
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Epilepsy
  • Diabetes
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment
  • Hearing impairment

Another common misconception is that an athlete with a disability is automatically placed in a special category at a triathlon. This is not accurate. Some athletes decline to disclose their disability, and that is their right. Others have a disability that does not require modification to their race, so they compete in traditional age-group categories without modification. Still others have a disability, but are racing in an event that does not offer a category for people with disabilities.

Though high-level paratriathlon competition has several categories for competition, Serota says most races can offer basic categories of racing:

  • Visually Impaired: Racing with a guide and tandem bike
  • Wheelchair: Racing with a hand cycle and racing wheelchair
  • Ambulatory: Racing with a traditional upright bicycle and the use of prosthetics or other assistive devices (such as crutches)
  • Adaptive: Racing with the assistance of a guide for safety (such as an athlete with an intellectual disability) or to complete the course as a team (with one athlete pushing another in a racing wheelchair, for example)

Additionally, there are athletes with disabilities who do not fall under a certain category of racing, but may still need accommodations, such as someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing and may need communication assistance, or an athlete with post-traumatic stress disorder who may need accommodations for dealing with crowds or loud noises.

Accessibility should be proactive, not reactive—and no, it’s not optional.

“From the ADA perspective, there’s no choice,” Murphy said. “You have to comply with the law.” If an event is open to the public, or if it’s an event someone can pay to enter, the law says it must be accessible and usable for people with disabilities. The ADA itself is a civil rights law, modeled after the Civil Rights Act. “If you have practices that do not include people with disabilities or disclude people with disabilities, such as not providing accessible port-a-potties at a race, for example, that’s basically the same thing as saying ‘no blacks allowed’ [from a legal standpoint,” Murphy said. “The law operates in the exact same way as the Civil Rights Act.”

Races that ignore accessibility are at risk for getting sued under the ADA. Engaging in practices that discriminate against people with disabilities is not only a high risk for legal troubles, it’s just bad business. After all, why ignore a segment of the population who wants to pay to be a part of your event?

“I’m willing to bet that at every race, there is somebody with some type of disability, whether they’re requesting accommodation or not,” Serota said. “Triathlon is a spectator-friendly sport as well, and people are bringing their families. So it may not be one of your participants that has a disability, but it may be one of their family members or their spectators. [Accessibility] should not be a reaction, it should be forward thinking and forward planning to include individuals with disabilities and think through all aspects of their race, from parking to packet pick up, restroom access, the course itself, the transition area, awards, and think through how that might impact people with all types of disabilities.”

Making a race accessible isn’t as difficult as you think.

There are many resources for making races accessible to people with disabilities. A good place to start is the ADA National Network’s Guide for Making Temporary Events Accessible. In addition to outlining the most common and necessary accommodations for people with disabilities, the guide includes contact information for ADA regional centers around the country. These centers are staffed with people like Murphy, who answer questions for free and provide guidance on ADA laws and accessibility.

There are also resources on accessibility elements specific to triathlon, such as How to Make Triathlon More Accessible for Athletes with Disabilities and USA Triathlon’s Paratriathlon Resource Page. USA Triathlon also offers continuing education units for race directors on making race courses “para-friendly,” where races can be reviewed and certified for accessibility for paratriathlon classes (this does not include not all disabilities, only the specific classes in paratriathlon).

One common misunderstanding about accessibility is that races have to overhaul the course for everyone in order to accommodate a few people with disabilities. That’s not the case, explained Murphy: “Under the ADA, the field of play, the race route itself, doesn’t need to be made accessible, because that’s just what it is. It does not force things to be fundamentally altered.” However, the elements that get an athlete to the race itself—from the registration website to event parking to clear signage—must be accessible.

Serota said the registration process is often a hurdle for athletes with disabilities. “Before people ever get to your race, they have to get to your website, and they have to register…There are a lot of free services available to know whether your website is accessible to those who use a screen reader program if they’re blind or visually impaired, which basically reads them the information and fills it out.” She also noted elements on social media, like alt text on photos or closed captioning on videos, can be helpful for athletes with disabilities.

At the very minimum, Murphy says every event should have basic training on ADA laws and how to respond to athletes with disabilities, whether it’s communicating with a person who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, or responding to questions about where an amputee athlete can place their prosthetic leg at the swim exit.

Financial resources are available to help races be more accessible.

“Small businesses can qualify for tax incentives, both deductions and tax credits, to improve physical accessibility,”Murphy said. “If your organization counts as a small business that runs these temporary events, it’s not like you have to put up all the money by yourself for these special access concerns, like accessible port-a-potties, which are more expensive than a normal por-a-potty. If you do qualify for that, that could offset some of the costs.”

Accessibility isn’t just about people with disabilities, it’s for everyone.

Many race directors forget that accessibility benefits everyone, not just the people with disabilities. “It’s not just that people with disabilities are the only ones that can use the accessible port-a-potty, for example, or people with wheelchairs are the only ones that can benefit from a ramp,” Murphy said. “People have children with strollers, they love ramps. When I have my bike and a bunch of gear and stuff in my hands, I like ramps too. Accessibility makes sense for a lot more than just people with disabilities.”