Robots for everyone

In 2015, Delaney Foster set out to create a high school robotics club that could include her sister, who has an intellectual disability. Today, Unified Robotics is game-changer for students with special needs.

Separated only by a year in age, sisters Kendall and Delaney Foster have been best friends all their lives. But as they grew, their differences became apparent. At a young age, Kendall was diagnosed with autism. Meanwhile, things at school were coming more naturally for Delaney. She was high-achieving, social, and captain of her FIRST Robotics team, a STEM-focused “sport of the mind” in which students build robots that compete in a series of challenges. Kendall would attend the robotics matches and cheer louder than anyone else for Delaney’s team.

But with Kendall always on the sidelines, there was an invisible wall between them. So in 2015, Delaney created a high school robotics club that could include her sister. Using the concept of unified sports, which brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities to compete together, she developed a plan. In Unified Robotics, teams of students (“partners” from the general education population alongside “athletes” from special education) use LEGO MINDSTORMS kits to build robots that compete in BattleBots-style sumo matches.

What started as two high schools coming together to see if Unified Robotics could take off has grown into a movement spreading awareness through experience. Today, with Kendall and Delaney’s mom Noelle at the helm, Unified Robotics is a game-changer for students with special needs across more than 50 teams. The organization is inclusive not just because it’s a unified program, but also because it provides life-changing access to STEM education (including coding and programming), technology,  and digital skills for everyone—regardless of their abilities.

I believe that diversity includes disability. Our society can learn so much from individuals with special needs and individuals with disabilities. And we always focus on their disabilities instead of their abilities, and that is something that we need to change.

- Delaney Foster, founder, Unified Robotics

Over the last several years, Unified Robotics has continued to grow. After the pilot season, they partnered with Special Olympics Washington (SOWA) to make robotics an official unified sport with a scalable model that schools across other regions can follow. Microsoft also partnered with Unified Robotics in 2017 to champion its mission by providing technology, devices, and volunteer support. And the 2018 SOWA Unified Robotics Championship in Seattle attracted 40 teams and a crowd of 264 volunteers and spectators.

One of the new participating teams came from Liberty High School in Issaquah, Wash., where Tod Oney is a Graduation Specialist and Robotics Mentor. Although their Unified Robotics team finished in the bottom half of three different fields at the championship, Tod says the season was a resounding success. “When I asked the team, ‘Do you want to do it again next year?’ they said, ‘You bet.’ It’s very simple. If the students want to do it again, it’s a success.” His team plans to learn from this year’s championship and come back ready to compete in 2019.

Beyond Washington, Unified Robotics has expanded to eight states and Noelle is getting requests from schools in other countries about starting programs. The demand is there—and certainly the impact of the program after more than three years speaks for itself. “A parent told me that their child said this was first time he actually felt included. I was really struck by that,” says Noelle. “This was the first time he felt listened to and an equal partner. It reminds me of a quote I once heard: ‘Diversity is inviting me to the party; inclusion is asking me to dance.’”

And this social inclusion is perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the program. Many of the teammates from the pilot program remain friends, even though they’ve graduated from high school. For special education students, working this closely with their peers on a complex project helped build their friendships, their confidence, and as Noelle put it, their ability to “imagine more.”

“The biggest roadblock is that [special education] students so often hear what they can’t do… This program shows that they have more potential. Throughout Kendall’s life, if people had said to her, ‘Maybe you can be a programmer,’” she might’ve imagined different things for herself,” adds Noelle.

The technology industry is really moving towards neurodiverse hiring, and there are jobs for [people with] all types of levels of ability. They’re a gift to industry and companies.

- Noelle Foster, President, Unified Robotics

This month, Kendall celebrates one year of working at her first job. Other athletes from the pilot team have remained involved with Unified Robotics, found work, or gone onto college—like Jesse Oglesby, who has autism and had taken on a leadership role recruiting other schools to participate in Unified Robotics. He’s now at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he started in inclusive Ultimate Frisbee team.

As for Delaney, she’s a junior in college majoring in mechanical engineering. Although she attends school on the other side of the country, sheremains involved with Unified Robotics. Her goal is to one day work on developing assistive technologies to help people of all abilities be successful in today’s culture.

“People with disabilities are commonly stereotyped as not being able to contribute or produce meaningful work,” says Delaney. “But, this stereotype is not true. Every human being has something to offer. And it’s important that any team, company, classroom, or school is inclusive. We can learn so much from each other.”