“I think right now in this COVID-19 pandemic, people with cognitive and social disabilities are really being overlooked. Because it's a really easy time to overlook them. We're all in isolation,” Delaney Foster shares. She and her sister Kendall, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, are raising disability awareness and changing the stereotypes around what it means to have ASD. For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit: microsoft.com/inculture/podcast
“I think right now in this COVID-19 pandemic, people with cognitive and social disabilities are really being overlooked. Because it's a really easy time to overlook them. We're all in isolation,” Delaney Foster shares. Listen on, and learn more about how the Foster sisters are raising disability awareness and demonstrating that there’s not one-size-fits all when it comes to navigating the world. Kendall and Delaney are developing initiatives that embrace people with intellectual disabilities. They’re proving that when programs and technology include all people, everyone wins.
For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit: microsoft.com/inculture/podcast
Lacey Henderson: Hello and welcome to the In Culture podcast. I’m your host Lacey Henderson, and today I have the great pleasure of speaking to Kendall and Delaney Foster, who are currently based in Washington State. They’re two sisters—Kendall is a person with autism spectrum disorder, and Delaney has really dedicated herself to making the world more inclusive for people like Kendall. She actually helped start a program called Unified Robotics, which is an after-school program where participants of all intellectual abilities come together for robotics competitions. It’s really cool, but we’re gonna talk about that later. The two sisters right now are joining me via Microsoft Teams. Thank you, ladies, for joining me.
Delaney Foster: Thank you so much for having us.
Lacey Henderson: Delaney. This is a question for both of you, but you can answer this first. What are some things that you wish the outside world knew about autism?
Delaney Foster: Well, I think a lot of people have so many different stereotypes about the autism spectrum disorder and any intellectual or cognitive disabilities. And so many people when they think of ASD, they think of someone with slow speech or nonverbal. Someone who's a genius in a particular area. Someone who doesn't like relationships and doesn't want to be with people. But the fact is, two people with ASD could be completely different, and that's why it's a spectrum disorder. And in fact, my sister is the complete opposite from all of those stereotypes. She's extremely social. She loves to hang out with friends. She's extremely quick and she doesn't have any splinter skills. And so, it's really hard when society has all of these stereotypes about what they think autism is, because they've from a very young age, have placed her into a small, restrictive box based on these stereotypes that don't even match her personality, which has limited her opportunities, ever since the beginning of elementary school. It's been really easy to compare my life to her life because we are so close in age, and just being able to see how many opportunities that I've had throughout my life. I've been able to be on team sports. I've been able to go to college, get a job in STEM. And it's like all of these big opportunities I've had, but it's also the small opportunities. I've been able to do overnight summer camps, and I've had the opportunity to learn how to drive. It's just all of these things Kendall hasn't been allowed to do. And it's not that she's not capable of doing it, it's that that box that she's been placed into allow people to say that she can't do it.
Lacey Henderson: It's like the restrictions that are put on her versus the ones that she would actually not be able to do.
Delaney Foster: Yeah. So I think the thing that I would want people to know about ASD is that it is a spectrum disorder and no two people with ASD are alike. When you hear that someone has autism, you can't go in with specific stereotypes that you have about them, you need to just start engaging with them one-on-one, learning about them, learning what their challenges are, what they enjoy doing, how they prefer to interact with someone. It's a very individualized disorder.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. I say a lot, the autism spectrum's the same way. No one disability is created equal. It's the same as far as anybody that you would meet that's on the spectrum. Kendall, what would you want people to know about autism?
Kendall Foster: People are different and have... What's it called?
Delaney Foster: Different strengths?
Kendall Foster: Different strengths. And people are different, and so people not perfect, so other people born with this.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. That goes for a lot of people. It goes for more than just people on the spectrum, for sure.
Lacey Henderson: You can't ignore the fact that COVID-19 is happening. And Kendall, I know for you, your life's been impacted a lot. I know you work and you live at your apartment. What are some of the rules that have changed right now as far as coronavirus that are affecting you?
Kendall Foster: Don't go places.
Lacey Henderson: Are there new rules at your work?
Kendall Foster: I work at like other people like seniors.
Lacey Henderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kendall Foster: So I cannot I go there. No friends. Only family can come or if they're going out, meet outside.
Lacey Henderson: Yes. So you have to meet outside.
Kendall Foster: Or we can go walk, something like that.
Lacey Henderson: That's it? That's it. Delaney, I know as a sister for you, you fought for inclusion for a really long time for your sister Kendall and this must be really difficult for you.
Delaney Foster: Yeah. As you mentioned, this COVID-19 pandemic has caused a very challenging and isolating time for our lives. And Kendall is an extremely social person. She loves to hang out with people. She loves to meet up with friends. And typically we have her schedule pretty packed with work and activities. Now that her schedule's empty, we've been doing our best to just help her get through these long and boring days. One thing, her only tool that she has right now is to call her family or her friends, which has been challenging. Not only for her, but also for us and that she isn't able to do anything independently right now. And we've been working so hard on having her get more independent. But because of all the different restrictions right now, she's relying so heavily on us. And we were working on just trying to find new activities that she can get into and trying to help her set them up. But it's hard when we can't go into her place to help her set them up. And there's a lot of different things to help connect us with other people right now is through technology. And without being able to understand technology, it's been really challenging for her to engage with others.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. There's still this missing link. I think the more that I have spoken with you both, and the more that I just think about it, there's this crazy interweaving of inclusion and isolation happening, contrasting and almost, one gets ahead, and then it takes a step back because now we're isolated. And maybe Kendall started out a little bit more isolated. You created this project for her to be included and now it's isolation again. Kendall, I know with everything going on, the rules are a lot more strict. How do you feel about it? What are you feeling right now?
Kendall Foster: Stress.
Lacey Henderson: Stress. A lot of stress. Is it a lot to remember?
Kendall Foster: Yeah.
Lacey Henderson: Just a lot to remember. A lot to follow. Does it seem like the rules are changing a lot?
Kendall Foster: Yes.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. I feel like that too.
Delaney Foster: Yeah. I think right now in this COVID-19 pandemic, people with cognitive and social disabilities are really being overlooked. Because it's a really easy time to overlook them. We're all in isolation. We're not thinking about anything else besides ourselves and this pandemic. But this time is extremely challenging for people with cognitive disabilities. And so right now, more than ever, it is important to just start showing people that they care about them and that they're thinking about them and trying to just find different ways to be social and to interact with people with different disabilities.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. And to connect, I think, ever since I've been speaking with you guys, I keep thinking, you see so often in the disability community talking about how, "Oh, now we can work remotely. That's accessible". But that's not necessarily the case for everybody's disability. I think something interesting that maybe we could elaborate on is just how heavily we are relying on technology, especially during this time, but there's still parts of it that kind of miss the mark. Even if it is possible or not, what do you think technology could do to make it even more accessible?
Delaney Foster: Well, I think right now, one of the biggest challenges is, there's so many companies who are developing absolutely incredible assistive technology, but the biggest challenge is being able to understand how to set up that technology. If you don't have someone who is a tech expert to go into your house and set it all up and make sure you can use it. The biggest problem with Kendall, especially right now, none of us are allowed to even go into her apartment, is that we can't set her up with a laptop and teach her how to use it. And so just getting to the point of getting the accessible technology, making that process more accessible so that anybody could figure out how to get the tools that they need to use technology.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. It's crazy. Your story, it's almost poetic, where it's like we've used technology to create inclusion, to create community, but now there's still this missing piece of the puzzle to continue to create that community in a time that we need it, at a time where we all feel isolated. But I know what you mean about the setup. My dad is 75 and I've tried to get him on a couple video conference calls and it's a meltdown. It's intimidating, the technology can be really intimidating. And I think again, we need different minds. We need more creative approaches to make it accessible, to make it for everybody.
Delaney Foster: Yeah. I really liked the point that you just said about how technology is intimidating, because that was one of the motivations that I had for starting Unified Robotics, is everyone hears robots or robotics and they're afraid of it. It sounds like the future, super high tech. There's no way that I could build a robot.
Lacey Henderson: That's exactly how I felt. Yes.
Delaney Foster: And that's a natural feeling, and one thing that was so important to me in starting Unified Robotics is that we try to break that barrier as much as possible. And it came down a lot to just marketing within the high schools, telling people that you don't have to have any experience to participate in this and to build a robot. And you're working with people who will help you learn how to do it. Because at first, when I came up with the idea and I started talking to people about it, nobody was really interested because they were all too intimidated. They were all too afraid to build a robot. But then, once I actually explained to them what the program was like, and six weeks later they had all build a robot. It was just absolutely incredible, and the pride that they felt and the accomplishment that they felt. And so, I think those experiences really helped them not to be afraid of trying something new or learning about technology and just having the skills to learn something new and to understand technology can really help with that fear of trying out new technology.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. Just having a space to at least attempt, you realize that you're a lot more capable. Kendall, do you remember when you were building robots, did you feel intimidated when you started? Was it scary?
Kendall Foster: No.
Lacey Henderson: No?
Kendall Foster: No.
Lacey Henderson: You weren’t scared? I would be.
Kendall Foster: No. Why? It's Legos.
Lacey Henderson: Oh, it's just Legos. Yeah, but afterwards you had a lot of fun, right?
Kendall Foster: Yeah.
Lacey Henderson: What do you remember from competition?
Kendall Foster: Winning stuff.
Lacey Henderson: Winning stuff. You won medals, right?
Kendall Foster: Yeah.
Lacey Henderson: And it was fun?
Kendall Foster: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Delaney Foster: The partner that worked with Kendall in building their robot? You miss her, what was her name?
Kendall Foster: Eva.
Delaney Foster: They became really good friends, but Kendall has struggles with attention span. And it was really fascinating to see how Eva overcame those challenges and with the programming of the robot, which is one of the most intimidating parts of building these robots, Eva framed it in a way that Kendall felt like she was training a dog. So, Eva was like, "Do you know how to train your dog?" And Kendall said yes. And then, Eva was like, "Okay. Well, now it's time to train this robot." And immediately Kendall understood that. And it was crazy that Eva, this girl who had never even met someone with an intellectual disability, was able to creatively think of a way to engage them and to help them understand. So, just having the experience of Unified Robotics is really beneficial to the partner students in learning creative ways to teach people as well as learning how capable someone is if you teach them in the right way.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. Oh, that's beautiful. Oh, gosh. I was just thinking while you were saying that, I think for the mainstream people outside of the world of autism, would you say that that's the mindset shift that could happen maybe in the future that where people can approach it? Because it seems like everybody won, basically. There was winners for sure, but it seems like everybody won in robotics when it came down ultimately to partnering up and finding a creative path to the solution.
Delaney Foster: Absolutely. Yeah, I think one of the biggest things that at Unified Robotics is everybody learns that success is different for each person. And a lot of the partner students are very type A, high achieving students who only thought that success was winning the competition. And then, working with these students one on one and seeing what success actually looks like and how for one person it could be connecting two Legos was success. And another person, just being able to stick with a project for six weeks was success. Really opened their eyes to see the world differently and to how success can look different for each person.
Lacey Henderson: I've watched a few interviews for you guys, and I've I've seen something really interesting, and it reminded me of something cool that I forgot that I had actually learned as well. We've seen from robotics and now these big companies, especially in tech, they're hiring and using people from what's called neuro-diverse backgrounds, which includes people on the autism spectrum. Where do you think this future of inclusive thinking could go?
Delaney Foster: Well, I think that it's really important to start having students as young as possible being exposed to inclusive environments because they start to learn what different disabilities look like and how much value someone with a disability can bring to the table. And so as these students grow up and go to college and then enter different career paths and are potentially in a hiring position one day, they can reflect on these experiences and wouldn't be afraid to hire someone with a disability. As well as having these experiences and these opportunities allows someone to think about different diverse groups of people when they're designing a product. I think right now a big challenge is when a designer sets out to build a product, if they don't explicitly try to include different groups, they're naturally just going to exclude those groups. And so it's really important to have a diverse team that represents various different groups of people when building a product in order to not exclude those people. And so I think as inclusion is gaining popularity and people are starting to see the importance of it, a lot of technology and a lot of what people are building right now will start to be more inclusive for everybody. So, yeah.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. Well, and I love what you said. You're like, the value that somebody brings. I think we forget that every single experience and every point of view does have value.
Delaney Foster: If people could make just the smallest amount of effort to get to know people in this community, our world could flip upside down. People don't explicitly try to design technology to exclude people, but when you don't have a diverse team of people building technology that shows various groups of people, then a product will exclude people. And you can't just read a book or be told stories to really know what someone's life is like. It takes engaging with that person, sitting down with them face to face, to really understand what their life is like and to learn about them and the way that they view the world and the way that the world views them. And it's these types of interactions that change happens, one person, one experience at a time.
Lacey Henderson: Oh my goodness, that is it. That’s exactly it, what we’re driving to in this conversation. Being inclusive is an active effort. I mean, dang, I’m ready to go out to my community and go meet people, go find somebody that has different experiences than me, find compassion and really find unity, and find things that work for everybody. Thank you Kendall and Delaney for joining me today. It’s been such a lovely conversation.
Kendall Foster: Thank you so much.
Lacey Henderson: If you, our listeners, want to know more about Kendall and Delaney, you can go to the In Culture website at microsoft.com/inculture. We also have an Instagram, follow us @MicrosoftInCulture. Thank you again.