Legally Blind Athlete Races for Abilities and Independence

Cristopher Centers

This post was contributed by a community member. The views expressed here are the author’s own. Gilliard, left, stands with sight guide Kathleen Mueller at a race (Courtesy of James Gilliard) On Sunday, March 8th, James Gilliard completed an indoor triathlon tethered to another person. This was business as usual […]

This post was contributed by a community member. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

Gilliard, left, stands with sight guide Kathleen Mueller at a race
Gilliard, left, stands with sight guide Kathleen Mueller at a race (Courtesy of James Gilliard)

On Sunday, March 8th, James Gilliard completed an indoor triathlon tethered to another person. This was business as usual for him—as a legally blind athlete, he relies on his sight guide, another person who serves as his eyes and helps him stay course.

Just over a week later, on the 16th, the rest of this year’s triathlons and 5Ks were called into question when the governor issued a ban on mass gatherings. Since that point, most races have been postponed, made remote, or altogether cancelled. Although he continues to compete in virtual races, Gilliard says he’s looking forward the return to in-person events.

“I miss having that comradery, to be quite honest, after being mostly isolated for the last 6 months, I miss the people,” Gilliard said. “But I will always gladly do them to support organizations and people that have helped to support me.”

Gilliard was initially referred to Donka for training with JAWS (Job Access with Speech), a screen reader program that allows visually impaired users to operate their computers without relying on sight. According to Gilliard, instructor Ann Byrne helped prepare him to enter the workforce outside of just teaching him how to use the software. Because she was blind since birth, she was could draw from her own experiences to advise Gilliard on dealing with obstacles he may encounter going forward.

“I believe that they provided an invaluable service to me,” he said. “In my opinion, one of the biggest things that helps someone like me move forward is having that independence, not having to ask someone every time, ‘Can you read this to me, can you read me my email?'”

Although he now has custom harnesses purpose-built for each leg of his races, it took a while to get to this point. His first tether was basically just a mass-market child leash, Gilliard says. He has become used to improvising and finding his own way forward to overcome obstacles introduced by his limited sight.

“Sometimes the need comes out of frustration that something isn’t working, or you can’t do something like you used to,” Gilliard said. “I’ve found ways over the years to adapt, even if there isn’t specific adaptive technology.”

As for the future, Gilliard’s race schedule is packed for the first 10 months of 2021, adding, “Assuming things get back to some semblance of normal.” His blog, “No Crappy Excuses,” chronicles his racing and training experiences and offers insight on the problems he has solved as a vision-impaired racer.

Sponsor James Gilliard in Donka’s Race for Abilities or join Team Donka at https://donkainc.org/marathon-…

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