The First Robot In the Family

When I applied to present at the Disability Intersectionality Summit to speak on, Mending Spirits: Disabled Mestiza Self-Care, the last thing I thought about was how this topic would come across from a robot.

After my acceptance, the conference co-organizer, Sandy Ho contacted me asking to speak about an opportunity. Since the conference was taking place at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the university offered the use of an autonomous robot to access the physical space as a presenter.

“But I’m just a regular person,” I replied, “With a regular computer. Could it work?” Sandy agreed to check, and then filled me in, that even though they offered a robot, she was still in the midst of insisting on a ramp for the main stage. We joked that a simple ramp might be too boring, that maybe she needed to ask for hydraulics or fireworks or something.

Robot covered.
Ramp – still advocating.

Then came the call to see if the robot would work for me. I sat nervously in my chair as staff from AVA robotics and MIT came up on the computer screen. Thankfully Sandy was there too. Sandy and I explained CART (real-time captioning) and how sign interpreters would be set up. They explained how to move the robot. The big problem-solving component was around how to move from the conference room to the breakout sessions upstairs. The robotics staff suggested that a volunteer guide travel with me, in order to help robot-Naomi to push the buttons in the elevator, and potentially push me in and out the elevator if the Wi-Fi failed. This is where I got confident. “I’m a Crip. I have no problem asking random strangers for assistance.” Sandy laughed.

The robotics staff continued by describing how the robot could, “stand up,” with the screen moving upward in height or, “sit down,” with the screen lowering in height. The suggestion to stand up, was to take command of the room as a presenter, a way to model this body language. As a disabled person who never stands up when I take command of a space, I wondered briefly what it would look like if disabled folks were in charge of programming robots. What function would we prioritize?

After the call, Sandy and I checked in. She assured me that they could find a Naomi-bot guide. I joked back that we could Crip-ify the position and make it a, “Robot personal-care assistant.”

Picture of a computer screen with the screen face of the robot reflected in a mirror projecting Naomi with a headset on.

That evening, I told my family what was happening. It took a minute for them to wrap their heads around what exactly I was saying. I described how the robot looked like a white, metal tube on wheels, with a screen at the top, that could roll around on its own.  I told them how the robotics staff invited me to log in for a practice session to try it out sometime before the conference. I jokingly suggested the family should come over and watch the practice session. We laughed about this and then my mom promptly invited herself over for real.

Then the following instant messenger chat with my Mom went:

Mom: you should totally write about this experience, I think the title should be, “My life is an Avatar.”

Me: I just did a post on social media I titled, “First robot in the family.” I also shared that you’re coming to my practice session.

Mom: Perfect! I’m just so excited. You should post about the dilemma of how to boot up for this practice session. Are you in a closet? In an office intruding on work? Need to elevate into a “standing position,” and peer over cubicle? Keep people in suspense.

Me: LOL! I love these ideas.

Mom: I think this makes you a truly legit intersectional activist, disabled, Mestiza,… Robot.


Mom: Is there robot etiquette? Just wondering…

Me: Actually, there is! The robotics staff person informed me, with a very serious face, that if you’re situated in the front of the room, then you don’t want to leave in the middle someone’s presentation.

Mom: Could you tell them you need to go the bathroom? Better yet, have some sort of paper ready to put on the screen saying, “malfunction… Malfunction!”

Then my stepdad started with the jokes, asking, “In case of a fire are you required to be the last one out?” And your mom wants to know, “What are the kidnap protocols.” Of course, I responded, “In that case the robot is on its own!”


Can you really lead a conversation on self-care from a robot?

Later, Sandy and I discussed how I could have a projected presentation going at the same time as I’m staring at folks from the robot screen. “I think I’ll have pictures of “place” on the screen, pictures of mountains and desert.” I said. “I want to talk about the places we live, how they are available outside of our people support systems to brace against when we feel like we have nothing. I also want to talk about how as disabled people we must continually communicate the unique needs of our bodies to get support to function. Which means we have practice being aware of our bodies in order to understand our needs ­– know our needs in the moment, which most nondisabled people don’t have to do.” There was a moment of silence and then Sandy responded, “I love that. And I love THAT’S going to be coming from a robot.”


Check out the Disability Intersectionality Summit, on Saturday, October 13th




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