Lex Gillette is a globally recognized Paralympic track and field athlete for Team USA. Competing primarily in the long jump, Lex has amassed four Paralympic medals, four world champion titles, and he is the current world record holder in the event. He is the only totally blind athlete on the planet to eclipse the 22-foot barrier in the long jump. He is currently training for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games where he aims to bring back gold for the United States of America.
Robbed of his sight during childhood, Lex Gillette was determined not to fall victim to a world consumed by darkness. With the aid of his mother, Lex was exposed to a diverse offering of resources and tools that were essential to his ability to achieve great things independently. “Elexis, it does not matter what anyone says. You decide what you can do, and no one else.” Those are the exact words spoken by Lex’s mother and were echoed in a 2016 Procter and Gamble commercial that featured both of them. Those same words have helped her son succeed in transforming what was once a tragedy, into a triumph. His athletic talents have been featured in media outlets including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today Sports, and People Magazine. He is a 2015 inductee in the ADN Hall of Fame.
Off the field of play, Lex devotes his time to positively enhance the lives of children nationwide. He serves as an athlete-mentor for Classroom Champions, an organization that pairs Olympians, Paralympians and professional athletes to K-8 students of schools in underserved areas within the United States and abroad. Through this program, Lex educates his students on the importance of skills such as goal setting, diversity, perseverance, teamwork, and healthy living. Lex and several of his students were featured in Fast Company in 2015 outlining the development of a Google Glass app that would give Lex access to more of the world, the same world that his students see with their eyes daily. It is during these early years when positive role models and strong guidance helped shape the trajectory of Lex’s life. His mission is to provide that same support for kids today.
Lex is a sought-after inspirational keynote speaker who empowers his audiences to gaze beyond the horizon and see more than what is in front of their eyes. There is no need for sight when you have a vision. That is the very phrase that has propelled Lex into a world of infinite opportunity. It is not our eyes that ultimately determine success in life. It is our ability to see a vision and do everything in our power to turn it into reality. During Lex’s presentation, you will laugh, you will cry, you will be inspired, and you will learn how to become a better version of yourself. With every stage that he graces, Lex is determined to do for his audience, what was done for him. That is, to Teach … People … To … See.
Hello, I’m Lex Gillette. I am a four time Paralympic medalist and world champion in the long jump for team USA. I am currently training for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, but prior to all of that, I originally grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had sight up until I was eight years old, and once I was eight, I started to experience sight loss and it was due to recurrent retina detachments that led to a string, of 10 operations that I had of which they were unsuccessful. And after the last one, doctors said there was nothing else they could do to help my sight. And they said that I would eventually become blind. So from that point, it was go home and go through your normal routine, go to sleep at night, wake up the next morning, see a little less, a little less than what you did the day before, excuse me, until one day I woke up and I couldn’t make out much of anything anymore.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed in 1990. So I was five or six years old. But I would say my first encounter with, with me not having the same access as the next person was as a freshman in high school. I can remember I had algebra the very first period of the school day. And for whatever reason, I used to always arrive to school late. It wasn’t my fault. I used to, I rode the bus to school and I lived clear across the other side of the city and the school that I went to they had a visually impaired program specifically, you know, set for individuals who are blind and visually impaired. And so you would go to that school because that VIP, the “visually impaired program” was integrated into to that particular public school. So instead of going to a blind school, specifically, I stayed mainstream and going to that high school meant that I would get the resources and, and accommodations necessary in being successful academically.
But circling back to the, to the bus, for whatever reason, I used to always show up to school like 25, 30 minutes late. And that was challenging trying to get to school. I’m basically missing all of algebra at that particular time and not really being able to, to learn and absorb the information like the, like the next kids. And it was a challenge. It was something that I struggled through. And eventually I had to, I had to take that class over again. And actually that was kind of one aspect that I experienced. And then the second one, I would say once I got into athletics. As a Paralympian, when you’re in a sprint competition, as a, as a Paralympian, who’s blind, when you’re in a sprint competition, you have someone who guides you, which means that you need two lanes.
You have one lane for yourself and then the lane beside you for your guide. And although I was participating in the long jump at that time, I also wanted to sprint. However, for whatever reason, the athletics association, I wasn’t allowed to have a second lane, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to run the 100 meters or the 200 meters. And that was, that was saddening. I mean you know, I, I felt like I was fast. I know that I’m fast. I wanted to participate. I wanted to, to experience that just like the rest of my teammates and the fact that I couldn’t do that, you know, that was that wasn’t cool. It didn’t feel good at all. I wanted to be able to have that same access, just like anyone else. I do think that now though that has actually changed.
So you know, kudos to that change being made. But then you also think about it. Imagine that you’re an athlete and you miss out on, you know, 6, 7 years or so, uh, you know, not being able to participate and I’m sorry, let me explain myself better. So of course in high school, you have 4 years and I’m thinking about myself specifically, I didn’t start running the 100 until maybe two or three years after high school. So when you add those 4 years from high school, plus the 2 or 3 after I graduated, now, you’re looking at 6 or 7 years of not being able to participate in you know, that event and as an athlete, time is, time is important. Time is, is undefeated. Someday at sometime, you’re not going to be able to, to jump as high. You’re not going to be able to run as fast as you did previously. And so that was, that was time that I lost. But as long as the people who come after me, the athletes who come after me, I would want them to have the opportunity to compete so that they can so that they can experience that so they can live their best lives.
In my experience, I definitely think that the ADA has made a difference. I have a lot of friends, a lot of, a lot of individuals who I know who have a disability, and they’ve gone on to do amazing things professionally, athletically. I think that when I think about my experience specifically, even outside of athletics, when I graduated from college, I, my first job was working for the parks and rec, excuse me, for Raleigh Parks and Rec. And I was a program coordinator for the visually impaired program. And it was, it was awesome to be able to step into that role and have a, a screen reader installed on the computer. It was amazing to have the ability to print things out in braille or in large print. Mind you, we did serve the population who they are blind and visually impaired. So you would expect that, that you have all of those accommodations.
But who’s to say that, you know, it’s not that way for other programs around the country. I mean, you know, I don’t know it could be totally different, but, to be able to step into that role and to, to be able to do my job effectively, that’s a really good feeling to know that, you know, we talk about the, the medical and social model of disability and talking about how we are disabled because of how society is set up and how it operates. And when we don’t have those accommodations, when we don’t have that accessible technology or, or any other resources that help us do our job, that is, that’s not a good feeling because you, you don’t feel as though you can, you can succeed and that you can get that sense of fulfillment. Like we all have something uniquely special to offer this world.
And when we’re not, you know, given the proper tools to be able to, to share that with the world, that is, you’re doing us a disservice most certainly. So I definitely think that the ADA is, you know, it’s helped out for sure. And even one of the other cool things as an athlete, I’m able to have sponsors that help fuel my journey to the Paralympic games. And right now I’m working with Intel and to have conversations with them surrounding potential technology that could help me within, within my sport and ultimately help other blind and visually impaired athletes. And, and who knows, could also help athletes with varying degrees of disability, all types of disabilities, to have those conversations with them, for them to be a soundboard for them to bounce things off of me and for us to, to have a conversation it lets me know that this is a, you know, this is a part of their thinking and that’s how it should be.
I think that that is an absolutely incredible thing. There will be way more people after me who come along. They may be athletes. They may not be athletes. They may be employees of Intel or any organization. And I think that we should all, we should always have those things in mind so that we can give access to anyone who may come through our doors. Anyone who may sit at, sit at our desks, anyone who may step on our tracks, our field to play, whatever they should be able to step on, you know, step into that environment, step into that role and know that they can confidently achieve what needs to be done.
One of the things that I think, well, a couple of things that I feel could change as it relates to the ADA, moving forward is I think that companies and organizations should make a, should make a, an effort to truly involve persons with a disability and some of those leadership roles in those higher positions. Because as you know, as it stands right now, we don’t see a lot of them in those positions. And I’m sorry, when I say them, I don’t see any other individuals, no pun intended, who are, who are blind and, and, you know, individuals who may use a wheelchair or whatever disability you have. I would most certainly love to, to know that we have individuals in those places of power to ensure that we have our perspective being voiced at the table to make sure that people are held accountable, to make sure that they are doing things in an appropriate manner that will make all of us feel welcome, specifically people with a disability.
I also think that as much as we do have the legislation, we also need to, get to the point where people’s hearts and minds have been won over. I’ve had some individuals say the most insensitive things to me as it relates to, “Well, you know, I thought that you needed some, some help” or specifically I’ll use their word, a quote unquote, “handler.” And that’s very, that’s very insensitive and that’s, that’s very much, god, I don’t need that. I’m I come from an environment where, you know, my mom, she expected me to do everything that I needed to do to ensure I could be successful, be independent and live on my own. So for someone to say something of that magnitude it circles back to, yeah, the ADA is awesome, but we also need to, we need to win over people’s hearts and minds so that they don’t have that type of thinking and that they don’t, they don’t say those types of things, because that is truly it’s insensitive it’s derogatory it is very offensive.
Some of the things that we can do right now, I think that most certainly having conversation is huge and we’re at a space and time right now, where a lot of conversation is being had, and we’re, we’re learning, we’re educating, we’re being educated. And I think that that’s a really good thing. I also understand that some of these conversations may be tough. People don’t want to, they’re afraid that they’re going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. And in all honesty, as a person with a disability, I can say that if we come to the table and your sole intent is to make the situation better and make the lives better of me and everyone who has a disability, I think that, you know, it’s safe to say that listen, let’s talk about it. If you, if you’re coming from a genuine space, I’m going to understand that. I’m going to pick that up.
And if it is something that, that comes across, that that needs to be adjusted, that needs to be fixed, then, you know, I’ll certainly let you know that because there’s going to be other individuals after me. And you’re going to know, you’re going to need to know how to conduct yourself and how to speak appropriately and treat them appropriately. So I think that having that conversation is huge. I also think that, yeah, it’s great to talk, but let’s come to a point where we can, where we can have some action, where we can make sure that kids have accessible technology, where we can make sure that potential employees have, you know, the necessary training or the necessary accommodations to help them do their job effectively. I think that you’re not only helping them, but you’re helping the company as well. For a person with a disability to be able to do their job at a thousand percent and to feel good about that, you know, ultimately it’s making your organization better. And if your organization is focused on revenue and money and all that other stuff, then, you know, making sure that that person has everything that they need is going to ensure that your ROI increases. So I definitely think that, you know, talking is good, but let’s put some walking behind that as well.
In partnership with Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.
Author: Beyond Awareness: Bringing Disability into Diversity Work in K-12 Schools & Communities, and children’s book Ed Roberts: Champion of Disability Rights, ADA 30th Anniversary Edition https://www.dianapastoracarson.com/store
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