May 5, 2023
Amplify Inclusion Podcast
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.
Aliyah Rich, Ned Williams and Katie Hench of InfiniTeach discuss inclusive culture and the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace. Check out the episode now or view the full transcript below. To access closed captions, you must be logged into a Podbean user account.
This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation, Bernstein, The Boutelle Family, Horton, Liventus INC, United Healthcare and members of the Aspire community.
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from the nonprofit Aspire. Thanks for joining us for stories and conversation about disability inclusion. Today I’m joined by team members from InfiniTeach, a company building technology that makes the world more inclusive for the autistic community. InfiniTeach is a small business developing apps for the autism community by the autism community. And since their founding nearly 10 years ago, they’ve stayed true to their mission. Not only are they developing tools for the community, they’re modeling the importance of inclusive employment by building a neurodiverse team of autistic self-advocates and allies. I recently spoke with Aliyah, Ned and Katie to discuss the importance of inclusive culture and diversity in the workplace. Here’s our conversation. Welcome Katie, Aliyah and Ned.
Ned W 00:57
Thanks for having us.
Hello. Thank you all for being here.
Katie H 01:00
Thanks, Clare. My name is Katie Hench, and I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of InfiniTeach.
Ned W 01:07
My name is Ned Williams. I am the Lead Media Editor at InfiniTeach.
I am Aliyah Rich. I’m Project Manager and Content Developer at InfiniTeach.
So I’d like to start with you, Katie, I know that you have a really deep commitment both personally and professionally to the mission of InfiniTeach. And I’m hoping you can talk a little bit more about the inception of InfiniTeach and how it all started.
Katie H 01:32
So 10 years ago, myself and my two co founders, Christopher Flint, and Lally Daley, we’re doing autism trainings in developing countries around the world, primarily in Southeast Asia, a little bit in Western Africa. And we would travel to those countries and provide trainings on a volunteer basis. And we had returned back and our inboxes would just be flooded with requests from people at those places, looking for more training and more resources. And so at the time, we thought, you know, what is the way that we can scale the work that we’re doing to really reach more people? And technology was kind of the obvious answer, that we thought if we could embed technology with some of these best practice strategies that we were demonstrating to folks that it was a really scalable way to increase the number of resources that were available. And so that was kind of the very inception, the very beginning idea of why we wanted to create InfiniTeach. And I think our mission has stayed the same pretty much over the last 10 years, where we really want to think about ways that we can use technology to make the world more inclusive for the autistic community and those with other neuro diversities.
I’d like to hear a little bit more about each of you, Ned and Aliyah. So, Aliyah, do you mind if I start with you, and then sort of what led you to work at InfiniTeach?
Sure. So when I first started in InfiniTeach, it happened five or six years ago. So I went to high school for people with disabilities. We all did a lot of things during high school. So a lot of projects, a lot of development skills, a lot of important skills, like how to live on your own, and like how to work. And during my time at the school, I was doing a work program. And during those times at the work program, I did a lot of jobs, but one of my most important jobs that I did was doing working at the office. So a lot of people there, highlight my skills as a person who can advocate, person who talks very well and just communicates easily. I’ve done projects like where I had to speak for the school. And the people out there are really impressed with what I did. So they recommended me to InfiniTeach. When I started with InfiniTeach, so I started with an internship. So I wrote a lot of blogs about people with autism, people with disabilities, finding a way to encourage people, find a way to like inspire people to recognize them, but also show the limitless possibilities they can do. And throughout those times, I developed a passion to just encourage people to recognize people with disabilities like me, who is autistic. But despite being autistic, I have so many interests that I can share with a lot of people and give my own perspective, what all I can do and what I’m capable of. And by the time I was near my end of high school, I decided to go to InfiniTeach because the joy, the advocacy of what they can do. But overall I enjoy what InfiniTeach aspires to do for people with disabilities, including autism, and ever since then I never looked back and I’m always appreciative of what they do now.
Ned, would you like to tell more about who you are and what led you to work at InfiniTeach?
Ned W 05:01
Sure. So I have autism. And this has caused a lot of challenges for me in terms of just living independently, managing my lifestyle, just dealing with other stress things. So I did have some job experiences before InfiniTeach, but they didn’t work out, because I didn’t understand the environment or anything like that. So I also see a social worker who helps me with this as well. But I also was seeing Chris Flint, who is one of the other co founders of InfiniTeach, and he would come over to my house where I was living with my mom at the time. And he would help
me learn skills and stuff like learning how to budget money, and stuff like that. And but then here’s the thing…and this is where almost like the planets aligned sort of scenario on how I started at InfiniTeach, but we would set aside times at the end of our sessions, for me to show him my latest projects that I’ve been doing. And those projects typically included stuff like texture packs for video games like Minecraft. And if you don’t know what a texture pack is, what it is, is basically you change out the visuals for new ones. And a texture is an image file that basically is mapped onto a 3D model. So I would show him stuff like that, I would show him my 3D modeling skills in a program called Blender. And he, of course, he was very impressed with all this. So with those skills I had, he realized he needed those skills at his company so he offered me a job. And that was like six months after InfiniTeach, which was started. And I started out at InfiniTeach by just working from home, like one day a week doing a couple of hours of work, and it grew from there. And now I’ve been at InfiniTeach almost since the beginning. And I went from hating my disability, to actually appreciating the benefits it could actually provide me when you use those benefits well, like the attention to detail that comes with autism has actually been very useful with my job.
Katie, I’m gonna come back to you for just a second because I know that at InfiniTeach, you all have been really dedicated to diversifying your team and making sure you have those authentic lived experience perspectives on the team. So why was that so important to you? And what are some of the things that you did to start expanding your team?
Katie H 07:28
Yeah, great question. So neuro diversity, having the autistic voice represented, is kind of part and parcel of our mission. Right? So that’s really ingrained in who we are as individuals and as a company and in the work that we do. So it was never a question for us. But I think it’s really interesting to think about companies and businesses, small businesses, especially that don’t have this as necessarily their main mission, their main focus, and what are those benefits to them for still having a neuro diverse team. We really have enriched our team and our team’s perspective by bringing more autistic voices on to our team, some of the steps that we’ve taken in order to make sure that our team, you know, has neuro diverse voices represented, one of those Aliyah mentioned is really building that pipeline. And so how do we seek out high school programs or other programs that are specifically serving this community and find job seekers that way? We’ve also very much opened up our personal networks, making sure that inclusivity and the neurodiverse community is our main target. So someone that is either neurodiverse, has that lived experience themselves, or someone who’s an ally. We think ally ship has a big role to play as well, that for inclusion to really become of movement, it takes not only the lived experience, but also allies that are amplifying the voices of individuals from this community. So I think there’s definitely ways that you can make sure when you’re recruiting that pool of candidates that you are targeting the neuro diverse community as a way of of getting more candidates in your own pipeline.
That pathway to employment piece is so important, because we all know that there are so many barriers to employment for people with all types of disabilities, and that those opportunities often don’t exist, right? They’re hard to find. So I’m curious if either of you, and maybe Ned we’ll start with you on this one, if you had any barriers to employment that you experienced prior to landing at InfiniTeach.
Ned W 09:38
Yes, I actually have had barriers to employment. I mentioned when I was talking about my background, how I had other job opportunities that I was given before I worked for InfiniTeach. Well one of those job opportunities was working at a local auto shop in my neighborhood. So when I was young, I decided that my dream job was actually doing something with cars, being a car mechanic. So I did some auto shop classes through my high school, so I’m also in a program called the transition program at this point, doing tasks throughout the school to simulate jobs, and I also doing a few jobs in the community. The auto shop was just something I was doing as a continuation of those things, but an actual paying job. So I only lasted at this job two weeks, because I didn’t have the resources or support I needed to understand the environment. Because the thing about auto shop that I discovered pretty quickly when working at this place, is that the environment at an auto shop and just the relationship the team has in an auto shop revolves around teasing and a teasing type I didn’t understand. So when they were teasing me, you know in an auto shop sort of way. Basically, I thought they were insulting me. And I of course, with my autism it made it very difficult for me to understand that they were teasing me. So after two weeks, I had enough and walked out. But if I had had the proper support at the auto shop, I would have been able to have the resources, I needed to be able to understand that that was only teasing, and probably been able to roll with it. And that’s something that I feel that employers should keep in mind, that even though we may struggle in some areas, if we have the right support, we can do that job, as well as anyone else we just need might need more support to do it.
Yeah, those are really great points. I mean, I think you’re drawing out, highlighting something really critical that it’s not just about hiring, it’s about how do we put the systems in place so people can maintain their jobs and continue to be successful at their jobs. So Aliyah, let’s talk a little bit more about some challenges that you faced during your time at InfiniTeach and how you addressed those with the team and how you solved those problems?
Well so, one of the many challenges that I face is during like, my time just traveling to the office. So sometimes I go to Chicago, and I have trouble getting the transportation to be on time. And I’m trying to get here early just before anybody comes. So just a way to just like get my routine started, of like traveling here and coming back to home. So things like that it can be difficult for somebody with disabilities. I learned to be very, very flexible. But some people with disabilities can’t always be that flexible. So they need a new system in place for some people with disabilities to have it worked out, or even have some type of way of life for people with disabilities to have Uber or learn Uber, or even learn how to like travel on their own. I feel like when it comes to people with disabilities, people forget they can capable of like doing things on their own. So as someone with disabilities, I’m trying to learn on my own how to do this, how to do that…
Katie H 12:57
With Aliyah, you know, that kind of open communication. And that level of trust is so important. And so for employers to come at some of these challenges that go beyond work, like you said, transportation, just getting to the office can take Aliyah an hour and a half or two hours. So just coming at that from a place of empathy and understanding is so critical. And then having that
flexibility. So Aliyah is incredibly flexible. And we make sure that the work that she has the day she’s coming into the office is also flexible so that if she is starting later, things could get moved
around, we can switch, you know, kind of the tasks that she’s working on. I think having that mutual kind of coming at it with like understanding empathy, and flexibility is really important.
Ned, I’d love to hear from you in terms of some challenges you face that InfiniTeach and how you’ve addressed those?
Ned W 13:50
Well, for me, the challenge has been the transition because the pandemic caused me to have to work from home. So I had to develop a new strategy to get my work done from home. So I managed to work from home during the main part of the pandemic. And then when things started calming down from all that I had to start coming back into the office. So I started coming back into the office one day a week and working the rest of the time from home. Well, suddenly, when I’m working from home and going to the office one day a week, suddenly, I have to make a whole new routine, which I was reluctant to do at first because unlike Aliyah, I tend to not be flexible about a lot of things. So that’s been a very big challenge for me to make that adjustment with like does adapting to not only having to work from home initially, but then having to transition back to coming into the office. And it’s been quite the struggle. I feel like at home now that I’m going back to the office two days a week, the struggle is that when I’m at home I have a very hard time just initiating a time to get to work and I feel like I’m easily distracted by some of my hobbies, and it’s just been difficult for me to actually get started, but once I’m started, usually I can finish the job. So the way we’ve sort of addressed that, as I’ve been talking to my other team members like Katie, Chris, and we’ve come up with some strategies to help me with this, like, they send me texts when it’s time to get working. And I’ve got a timer to help better keep track of my hours, which was also a struggle. And it’s getting, it’s definitely improving. But it’s, there’s a long road ahead to get me back to where I was before the pandemic.
Thank you to both of you for sharing about those challenges. And I think Katie mentioned a few things that I feel like were themes in what both of you said, and that’s the open communication, right, and trying new things being open to looking at solving problems in a new way, thinking outside the box, how can we be flexible to meet everybody where they are? So Katie, in addition to sort of the open communication, you mentioned, building trust, and having that sense of security, where people can ask for what they need. Is there anything that you and your team have really learned from the process of growing the team and having new perspectives and having to adjust yourselves?
Katie H 16:06
Yeah, I think in working with Ned and Aliyah, and just in having a neuro diverse team, you do learn so much about individual management styles and work preferences, and, you know, allowing them that flexibility to request accommodations, and then also helping, you know, suggest or recommend certain accommodations, if we see that there are challenges that are being faced. I think our team overall has learned, you know, how to be much more organized and how to have really clear expectations for each project that we’re doing, because the way that they’re processing the information, not only does it hopefully benefit Ned and Aliyah and the way their brains process information, but it actually benefits all of us, right, because because we’re all on the same page then with, with what we need to get done. You know, I think about some of the open ended challenges that exist in in managing a team, one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about is, is taking health days and mental health days. And that is such a
critical concept, especially right now, people need those mental health breaks. And yet, that is such an open ended concept that we couldn’t just put a policy out there and say, you know, take a mental health day when you need it. With Ned, we created a whole document that said, this is what a mental health day is and this is when I might need it and this is how I can request it. And so it just really helped further define what that is and what that looks like. And you just think about some of those concepts that are so critical to having a really effective workforce. And yet too often we don’t talk about them, or we don’t give them details, or we don’t provide enough information for people to really benefit from them. And so I think having a neuro diverse team forces us to take a few steps back and say, okay, when we put this policy out there, or when we have this expectation on a project, have we really concisely, clearly defined that and communicated that with our team. And that has been one of the most beneficial aspects of having a neurodiverse team.
Ned W 18:09
Right. And with the health day system, basically, even though I love my job, I definitely have times I’m just overwhelmed and just need to take the day off. And it’s been very helpful in the fact that it’s structured in such a way like, how I might need one, how I request one, all of that has been very helpful.
I love that example. And I think everything you said Katie and Aliyah and Ned, it’s all of these benefits extend so far beyond individuals, right? It really ends up impacting everyone that works with you, and then impacts the people who use the products you create, right? Because you’re able to be more efficient, more productive, work better together, create meaningful things for the community…
Ned W 18:50
Right. If you support the team, the team can be more productive, then you can make a better product and you get more sales so they can grow your team or give the teams more support. Sort of mutually beneficial around.
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. So I want to I want to talk a little bit more of that broader impact because you’ve both talked about and started to touch on what this job has meant to you personally, and I’m hoping you can just share a little bit more about that. So Aliyah let’s let’s come back to you. Can you share more about what it’s meant to you to work at InfiniTeach?
InfiniTeach is truly like a family, every sense of the word. We are truly there for not only for the autistic community but for people with disabilities. During my many times at InfiniTeach, I’ve just seen such growth with the team, of what they are doing for others, what they’ve been working on. So whether it’s a museum, or even a park or even somewhere in France. It’s just a great honor just working with them. InfiniTeach really truly made me appreciate who I am as a person, and what I’m capable of, and it gave me a such a greater purpose of life. I can not only share my voice but I can share my voice in such a way that we can impact the autistic community and hopefully include more great inclusion for people with disabilities. And we do so many things together as like a group. Sometimes we do like a special group outing. We do like a group chat of like us what we’re working on. But also we have fun, a little bit. So maybe a joke. Maybe it’s something to show, maybe some movie quizzes, things like that help us not only just
communicate, but also understand each other, what we’re doing. So Ned might tell us the latest game he’s playing, I might tell somebody what I’m doing around Chicago, Katie tells a lot about her family what they’ve been doing lately, everybody else does the same. And it’s just a great way to share and have fun, but also be flexible to everybody else. Because sometimes we struggle with things. I struggle with many things recently. But I learned to be strong, not only because Katie was there for me, but the whole team was. And like I said, I’m super grateful and thinking about it always makes me cry. And I’m just so appreciative of what I’m doing here. Not only that, but my family is because knowing they are there for me, and I’m there for them. So it’s been such a great honor in doing that.
Katie H 21:35
Aliyah, you’re making me cry too!
I can like hear and see how much pride you have in the work that you do and in being part of the team when you talk about it, which is really great. And also, I kept thinking about that word belonging just you thinking about how it feels like a family and all of the ways that you all support one another professionally, and just as people, which is such a powerful and important piece. So thank you so much for sharing all of that. Ned, I’d love to open it up to you to talk a little bit more about what InfiniTeach has meant to you personally, to be an employee there.
Ned W 22:08
Well, for me, it’s meant that I can help others with the same disability I have. Because there were a lot of challenges I had, where basically, I was struggling with various areas like getting jobs and all of that just because I, the support I needed in a lot of cases didn’t fully exist. So this job means so much to me, because I’m working with a team that is providing others with my disability, the supports that I lacked. It’s giving the community those supports. And therefore I feel good about the job I do, because I’m knowing that other people with autism are having an easier time than what I had by using my experiences to help make it better.
It sounds like a lot of personal and professional benefits for both of you and just feeling empowered, feeling like you’re giving back, feeling like you have an impact and then also seeing your own skill sets grow. Would you agree with that?
Ned W 23:13
Yeah, I’ve come a long way. And this job has helped me get there. And these skills I’ve developed at InfiniTeach are also useful for my hobbies too, because they rely on very similar skill sets. So it’s benefiting my personal life. It’s benefiting my work life. It’s just benefiting me all around.
So Katie, you talked a little bit about this a moment ago, all the ways that InfiniTeach has benefited from growing your team. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. And specifically how you feel Aliyah and Ned have really made InfiniTeach better?
Katie H 23:44
Yep. So our team is living its mission, right? We couldn’t effectively or, you know, like, even validly do inclusion if we weren’t being an inclusive employer ourselves. So I think that’s so
important to us that we’re working together that this is a model of inclusion, that we have neurotypically processing brains, and we have neurodiversely processing brains, and we’re all working together to come up with better solutions and better ways to reach more people. So I think just the idea of us living our mission is so important. I don’t know even know where to start with when it comes to talking about Ned and Aliyah and the impact that they’ve had on our team. I could say a million things. So instead of I’ll try to just kind of come up with one or two reasons for both of them. But I just want to thank Aliyah for bringing an element of culture to our team, that she is the one that plans all of these activities, all of the fun days that we have, she’s in charge of. And it’s not only great from kind of just like internal team culture, but like she said, it improves our communication. It makes it feel like it’s a family so when we’re facing challenging problems or are hard situations, we have a lot more to fall back on than just a work relationship. And I think that is incredibly critical for any small business to have. So I think Aliyah reminds us that those ties exist beyond work, and those ties are critical. And Ned brings such a different perspective, he looks at challenges in different and unique ways that a lot of times we haven’t even considered. And one example of this that Ned really likes to share is a few years back, we were working on an app where we had to develop our own keyboard to run the app. And we tested it with what Ned probably 50 people who were who were prototyping and piloting this app for us. And no one realized, until Ned started testing it, that on our internally developed keyboard we had put two U’s. So instead of having a Y we had two U’s and Ned was able to kind of use his autistic perspective and be like, “Whoa, no, no, none of the 50 people that tested this before even realized that there are two U’s on this keyboard.” And that is just one small example of of kind of that very unique, detail oriented perspective that Ned brings to not only solving simpler challenges like that, but also some of our bigger problems and brainstorming and ideas that we try to come up with. Ned and Aliyah, absolutely enhance our culture, enhance ourselves as a company, help us live our mission and bring their own personalities and perspectives to the table. I think overall, it’s helped us to work more efficiently, communicate more effectively, and just be an all around better company as well.
So if we’re thinking about those employers that might be listening right now, what do you think they should know about why it’s so important to hire neuro diverse teams?
Ned W 26:57
Well, for me, I feel like it’s important to hire neuro diverse teams, because currently, people with neuro diverse disabilities are overlooked because there’s an assumption that because they need extra support, they’re not cut out for these jobs. But really, even though they might need extra support, in a lot of ways, these people with neurodiversity, disabilities, and stuff like autism and other stuff like that, is they provide another perspective, where you can make changes to whatever product you make, or they might give you a different perspective of where there might be issues from the perspective of someone who’s not neurotypical. And you could be more inclusive as a company. And then these communities that are normally overlooked in a lot of areas can also be included and get the opportunities they might not otherwise get.
Aliyah, what do you think? Why is it so important for employers to hire people with disabilities?
I think it goes back to like recognizing perspectives. I feel like people with disabilities can be treated as limited. So they might be having lots of job opportunities for grocery stores, but not
many job opportunities for like, computers, or even math or even art. So I feel like more people should have more limitless opportunities to do more internships, more even training for people with disabilities. So have jobs, learn more about people with autism, learn more about what they need requirements, or even just recognizing what they can and can’t do. Like I said, me and Ned very, very capable, but so is somebody’s cousin or nephew that has autism, so just give them opportunities, give them chances, they may not able to speak, they may not understand everything, but still teach them to love, teach them to learn, and never let them feel afraid of what they are.
That’s a great call to action. Think about everybody knows someone right that has barriers in front of them that hasn’t been given an opportunity, and how do we take that empathy and those personal connections to think about how we can be a better community as a whole? And that’s kind of the last question I want to end on thinking about the impact it would have on our whole communities and our world. If businesses focus more on hiring people with disabilities, having neurodiverse teams, how would that make our world better?
I feel like it will open a great way of like inclusion of just everybody. There’s always somebody with disabilities, even elderly, young kids, babies might have disabilities. It just helps a great understanding of everybody. If we are marching for a matter, or even female rights, it’s just we should encourage more disability rights in terms of what we do, what matters. I feel like we can do such more if we recognize disabilities. To call back to someone I know that says sometimes people with disability comes last, we shouldn’t have people come disability last, we should have them at front. Sometimes people with disabilities have struggles to like, look up something online or have something to do at their job or something to go place that aren’t really accessible. So we need to encourage more accessibility, not only for our city, but everywhere we go, whatever we do. So just to help encourage people like Ned to not feel left out or even just to recognize themselves. For me, it’s just it was a struggle to just recognize myself because not a lot of people understand what disabilities is, or even what it’s like to be me. But I still have the courage to be myself, despite what other people might say.
Ned W 31:04
We both mentioned that a lot of times, people with disabilities get overlooked and are hired last. But by doing that employers need to understand that – I mean, we live in an era now, where being inclusive is sort of becoming a big deal. And if you if you don’t want to hire people with disabilities, not only are you missing out on opportunities to make your company and your team stronger, and give be given more opportunities by having that different mindset, but you could end up falling behind other companies that that do hire people with disabilities in the long run, as society gets more and more decided that inclusivity needs to be a thing and that needs to be universal. And the companies that don’t adopt it will eventually fall behind.
Katie H 32:04
Ned, I love that right, disability as a competitive advantage. And if you don’t do it, your company is going to fall behind.
Thank you to my guests Aliyah, Ned and Katie, check out the links in the episode description to learn more about InfiniTeach and their community initiatives. Join us for our next episode
coming this June. Until then, stay connected with us at AspireChicago.com and rate review and subscribe to Amplify Inclusion. This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation, Bernstein, The Boutelle Family, Horton, Liventus INC., United Healthcare and members of the Aspire community.
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