Visually impaired athletes say they are being left in limbo by a classification system that means many who are registered disabled are not judged sufficiently impaired to compete at international level.
As many as one in 10 visually impaired athletes in the UK could fall into the category B4, a level recognised by British Blind Sport but not by the Paralympic movement, and which falls outside the criteria defined by the International Blind Sport Association.
Athletes are regularly required to submit themselves for classification ahead of international tournaments and now a group of athletes have begun to lobby for change, after finding themselves barred from sports they had competed in for up to a decade.
“It crushes you because you’ve spent your entire life trying to find somewhere that you fit in and then you do, you get quite good at it and you’re told: no, you don’t fit in here any more,” says Karina Lang, who has represented GB women at the sport of goalball, but has since been reclassified as B4 and will be unable to compete at next year’s Paralympic Games.
“Paralympics is about being inclusive,” Lang says. “It’s such an amazing movement and I was proud to be part of it. But it just feels like this classification system is outdated now and something needs to happen. It needs to be looked at, to say, ‘Actually there is this big group of people we’re missing out. How can we include those people?’”
All blind sports apply a three-stage classification at international level, from B1 to B3, with B1 applying to athletes who are entirely, or almost entirely, blind. The B3 category includes people who can see at six metres what a fully sighted person could see at 60.
British sport recognises a category below this level,B4, which can include people who see at six metres what the fully sighted could see at 24. Such a score would still allow an individual to register as sight-impaired in the UK.
The classification system has been in place for 40 years and established long before many modern technical and medical improvements were made available.
Alongside fellow goalball international Adam Knott, who competed for Team GB at London 2012 but is now ineligible, Lang is calling for a more inclusive approach to classification. A petition calling for a resolution to the “discrimination issues within the current system” has had 4,000 signatures.
“I honestly don’t know why the cut off is where it is,” says Dave Gavrilovic, the vice chairman of British Blind Sport. “Sight classification is a very delicate subject and has to be dealt with very carefully. We have no objection to the idea [of reclassification] but it needs proper research.”
Gavrilovic observes that the gap in vision between the ends of the B3 and B4 categories are substantial and that a full scale adoption of B4 into international blind sports would potentially see the exclusion of B2 athletes in mixed classification sports such as partially sighted football. Goalball is one sport that should be less affected by the classification, he says, as all athletes are obliged to wear eyeshades.
The International Blind Sports Association has begun to reconsider classification in some sports, and has recently published a new system for visually impaired shooting, which takes into account both visual acuity and contrast perception. “Sport by sport is the right way to do it,” says Gavrilovic, “but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
A spokesperson for the British Paralympic Association said: “The British Paralympic Association fervently believes in the right of every disabled person to participate in sport with the wide range of physical and mental wellbeing benefits this brings.
“Classification continues to evolve and work is ongoing in sport-specific classification for vision-impaired athletes across a number of sports.”