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Quadriplegic athlete Joe Stone uses a hand cycle in 2014.

A Montana Human Rights Bureau investigator found that the Missoula Marathon, and its parent organization Run Wild Missoula, discriminated against disabled athletes who wanted to travel the course using a hand cycle.

In findings submitted to the bureau last week, investigator Josh Manning sided with Joe Stone, a quadriplegic athlete who has worked with Run Wild Missoula since 2012 so hand-cycle racers can compete in the marathon without prohibitive restrictions.

Stone alleged that Run Wild discriminated against him when it eventually allowed hand cycles in 2014, but imposed speed limits, limited the number of hand cyclists to eight and required them to yield to foot traffic on certain parts of the Missoula Marathon course.

Further, he alleged the hand cyclists couldn't pass others at certain intervals and had to check in at the race 15 minutes earlier than other athletes. 

"Discrimination can take many forms, and even people who believe they are trying to be inclusive and accepting of people with disabilities can create practices or policies that discriminate," Manning wrote in his investigative report.  

Tony Banovich, executive director of Run Wild Missoula, released a statement to his members late last week, contending the organization "acted in good faith" by allowing wheelchair athletes and hand cyclists to compete in the 2014 marathon.

Despite those efforts, Banovich said, the complaint alleging discrimination was filed, and the Human Rights Bureau found there was "reasonable cause to indicate that discrimination may have occurred."

"We do in fact want to find a way to accommodate the accessibility community, as long as we are comfortable that we can do it safely," Banovich told the Missoulian. "We are continuing to work on that with the members of the accessibility community to come to short-term and long-term solutions."

And as of Friday, the organization was allowing hand cyclists to register for the July 12 marathon, and indicated they would start the race five minutes ahead of the runners.

The Human Rights Bureau process, however, is not yet resolved. The next step is conciliation, where each side will attempt to settle the disagreement out of court. If conciliation isn't reached, Stone could file a civil lawsuit in Missoula County District Court.

"There are plenty of marathons throughout the country that don't allow hand cycles," Banovich said. "Everyone has to evaluate their course and layout independently. The full marathon merging into the back of the half marathon is unique to us, and that has always been our issue."

But the investigator found that Run Wild Missoula "has not provided enough compelling information" on how the course itself limits any potential changes or adjustments needed so hand cyclists could safely race alongside runners and walkers.

"Based on the documents provided by RWM and Stone and interviews with RWM staff, there is no indication RWM conducted an adequate independent assessment to determine whether Stone presented a direct threat," Manning wrote.  

According to the investigation, the Governor's Cup in Helena doesn't allow hand cycles because five miles of the course traverses rough road and sand. Other marathons that don't allow hand cycles include the Phoenix Marathon and another outside Denver. The Portland Marathon in Oregon, the Fargo Marathon in North Dakota and Salt Lake City Marathon all allow hand cycles in their races.

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Beginning in early 2012, Stone began meeting with Run Wild Missoula in an effort to convince the Missoula Marathon to allow hand cycles in 2014.

According to the complaint, Stone wanted to use the competition to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Paralyzed in a paraglider crash on Mount Jumbo in August 2010, Stone is a passionate advocate for accessibility to recreation for the disabled. 

Run Wild Missoula didn't allow wheelchair or hand-cycle racers in the full marathon but allowed them in the half when Stone began his efforts. The group alleges this is because of safety concerns.

In the 2009 race, there was a collision between a hand cyclist and a runner at the point on Blue Mountain Road where the full and half marathon courses merge.

Both athletes finished the race; however, the organization denied wheeled racers access to the race in 2010 citing safety concerns.

According to the investigation's findings, Missoula police were also concerned about the speed at which hand cyclists cross intersections. Adding to the list of concerns, registration for the 2010 race doubled after it was named the nation's best race by Runner's World magazine. Last year, there were nearly 6,000 participants. 

During his meetings with Run Wild leaders, Stone made multiple suggestions, including staggering the start times, banning headphones or altering the course, but all of those suggestions apparently were rejected.

"There are some of the suggestions that would have worked and some of them ... and there are others that we are still evaluating," Banovich said. 

In his findings, Manning said that after two years of meeting with the organization, Stone was basically in the same position as when he began.

"Stone said he felt like RWM staff 'patted him on the head' and were more concerned about the welfare and participation of foot racers," Manning wrote. "The behavior and emails from RWM staff show why he would feel this way. Based on Stone's characterization of RWM staff, the tone of several 2014 emails, and their conduct during interviews, the investigator has found most of their statements to be disingenuous." 

Run Wild initially had banned hand cyclists from competing in this year's Missoula Marathon; wheelchairs would have been allowed.

According to Banovich's statements during the investigation, the restriction came because "they are considered bicycles by national organizations affiliated with disabled athletes." 

"Athletes in wheelchairs are allowed because they are considered to be equivalent with foot racers and RWM wants the marathon to continue to be considered as a foot race," Banovich contended in the investigation.

As of Friday, however, the organization had changed its website to allow hand cyclists to register for both the full and half marathon on July 12, Banovich said. The website includes several safety recommendations for hand cycles and wheelchairs, and lists a start time five minutes before runners.

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