Lessons on Disability Inclusion from Para-Athlete Noelle Lambert

Giselle Mota of ADP and Noelle Lamber fist bump during interview

Giselle Mota, Chief of Product Inclusion for ADP, interviewed Noelle Lambert, a para-athlete and founder of The Born to Run Foundation, during the keynote session of ADP's virtual conference Inclusion Summit 2022. Here are the topics covered during the session and the insights shared.

For the second consecutive year, ADP hosted a virtual conference focusing on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Inclusion Summit 2022 featured a keynote session titled, "Scoring Goals with Team Inclusion for People with Disabilities," that specifically spotlighted disability inclusion.

Giselle Mota, Chief of Product Inclusion for ADP, interviewed Noelle Lambert, a para-athlete, founder of The Born to Run Foundation and season 43 cast member on the television show Survivor. Lambert became disabled in 2016 after a moped accident resulted in the amputation of one leg above the knee. She went on to compete on the U.S. Paralympic team in track and field.

In their Inclusion Summit session, Mota and Lambert discuss Lambert's experience as an athlete both before and after becoming disabled. Lambert shares insights gained from her competitive sports experience that she says can help organizations create more disability inclusion in the workplace and bring out the best in everyone.

Here's a look at what leaders can learn from this conversation, including why inclusivity matters for people with disabilities and effective strategies for fostering inclusivity among peers.

Lead with normalization and acceptance

"There are over a billion people in the world that have some sort of a disability," Mota notes. "Sometimes you can have a disability because you were born with it or you acquired it. Anyone can have a disability."

Normalizing our differences is the key to building disability inclusion at work. Lambert points out that everyone in the organization plays a role in this, not just leaders.

"Welcome differences and … do not make it a big thing," suggests Lambert. "Make the person who is disabled in the group feel comfortable. When I'm around people that I feel are accepting of me and that I feel like I can be comfortable with, that is when I show my best self."

This requires intentional strategies. Mota, referring to product design, shares that part of the process involves consciously checking for inclusivity by asking questions like, "Who did we leave out when designing this?" and "Did we include people with disabilities?" From Lambert's perspective, this is an invaluable way that organizations can work to create a better future for the next generation of people with disabilities.

Treat people equally

People with disabilities might look different or do things differently than their able-bodied teammates (and those with unseen disabilities may blend right in), but it's important to treat people with disabilities as though they are just as important as anyone else on the team — because they are.

"A big thing for my coaches and the captains on the team is they wanted to treat me like everybody else," explains Lambert, who switched from playing lacrosse to running track and field after becoming disabled. "They didn't want to give me an advantage just because I had a disability, and they never let me use my disability as an excuse not to do a drill or not to participate in practice. That made me work even harder because [they] focused on me and tried to get me to live out my dreams. That just made me feel comfortable and confident. And it really did make me feel like I wasn't different."

Feeling comfortable to show up as you are and feeling accepted by your leaders and peers — differences and all — are the foundation of a healthy, inclusive culture. Making an effort to be more inclusive and treat people equally can lead to a number of benefits for a business, including heightened employee engagement and increased interest from talented candidates.

Equal treatment for people with disabilities may also improve representation. "You often see that there are groups of people who are not in leadership positions," Mota notes. "It's not because they're not qualified. It's not because they don't have amazing skills. Organizations are figuring out that they need to widen their search more. We need to be more creative and think outside of the box on attracting people to our organizations and achieve all kinds of diverse representation."

Creating a more inclusive future

Much of Lambert's advice to people who meet a person with a disability is about mindset. She encourages everyone to recognize visual differences in people and even express curiosity about those differences but to do so without treating them differently.

"When you see somebody with a disability in the workplace or just out walking their dog and living their life, don't just view that person as somebody who's broken," Lambert says. "Don't just view them as somebody who's a superhero for doing everyday normal things. People with disabilities aren't different from able-bodied people. They have a brain, they have a heart, they have everything that you have; they just do things in a different way."

Unseen disabilities are also important to consider. "You do sometimes have to go the extra mile in making space and making a culture of belonging for people with any kind of difference," says Mota, who has dyslexia. "We have to think about all kinds of underrepresented groups and take them into account."

Normalizing differences in people — from physical and mental disabilities to differences in ethnicity, gender or religion — is how we foster true diversity and inclusion in our workplaces and in our world. And a big component of normalization is being able to talk about differences openly and honestly.

"I'm really grateful that I can have these types of conversations," Lambert notes. "And we can hopefully make a difference in the world for people who are different."

Disability inclusion benefits everyone

Disability inclusion is an important part of your broader diversity, equity and inclusion effort. By working toward understanding the experiences of people with disabilities within your organizational culture, leaders and colleagues alike can help create a more inclusive workplace, where differences are recognized, accepted and even celebrated as a competitive advantage.

Access an on-demand recording of this keynote session and the rest of the Inclusion Summit 2022 events at ADP's virtual summit website.