From Tourette’s Syndrome friendly to total inclusion: how Tech4Good helped Femi to grow his vision of accessible coding

“Having Tourette’s Syndrome has made me a kinder and more conscientious person who is open and willing to take time Photo of Femi and Grace Owoladeto get to know others as individuals. I’m really proud that I can have such a positive influence on other young people and part of a young coding community that is built on diversity, inclusion and respect for everyone.”- Femi

Femi Owolade-Coombes is one of our 2016 Tech4Good BT Young Pioneer Award finalists. Inspired by his love of coding, and his Tourette’s Syndrome diagnosis at the age of seven, Femi organised an Autism and Tourette’s Syndrome friendly ‘South London Raspberry Jam’, where young people could have a go at hacking Minecraft using Raspberry Pi computers. 

To celebrate Tourette’s Awareness Day on 7th June 2019, I caught up with Femi and his mother Grace to see what they’re up to three years on. Femi is now thirteen, and his infectious enthusiasm for inclusive coding is stronger than ever. Chatting to Grace it is immediately clear how proud she is of Femi and the pioneering work he is doing- and rightly so! Hearing his list of achievements and upcoming projects made me very aware of how little I know in comparison to somebody over ten years my junior. Since 2016 Femi has set up his own coding business, Hackerfemo, and has been recognised as one of the 2018 London Tech Advocates’ 25 under 25s rising talents

It all started with Femi wanting to share his passion for coding with children like him. He is an undeniably brilliant and confident young man, but as Grace points out to me, he knows how it feels to be different. Running inclusive community events for young coders and creating accessible opportunities continues to be at the core of what Femi does. 

Grace is very open about the connection they feel to AbilityNet, and how the Tech4Good awards marked the beginning of the next chapter in their incredible journey to inclusion….

“When Femi got shortlisted as a finalist, it really made him aware that there was a wider community of people doing amazing things for accessibility.”

Meeting his fellow inspiring finalists, learning about diverse disabilities finding out about all the technological innovation being put to good made Femi realise the wider impact of the work he was doing for children with Autism and Tourette’s Syndrome - and spurred him on to further his reach. 

Although Femi was inspired to extend his passion beyond his immediate Tourette’s Syndrome community, Grace is keen to reiterate that neither her nor Femi claim to be experts on the diverse range of disabilities their coding meet-ups are open to. Instead, Grace highlights the “warm” and “grounding” relationship they have fostered with AbilityNet over the years as a key to their efforts in achieving true accessibility, often turning to us for expert guidance. In fact, Grace tells me that only last week she reached out to Mark Walker, the organiser of our Tech4Good awards, for advice on how to accommodate a new young coder who is deaf. 

Grace explains that for one so young, it was an especially pivotal moment for Femi to be so warmly welcomed into the wider community of inclusivity, and to still feel that support today. The encouragement, confidence and contacts they gained through Tech4Good has enabled Grace and Femi to face challenges to diversity and accessibility head on. 

“Parents, carers and young people…we’re a community. We’re in it together”.

Chatting to Grace I get a real sense of the effort that goes into Photo of Femi running a coding workshop for childrenensuring their coding meetups are as accessible and inclusive as possible. They do not always have access to expert support staff or BSL interpreters, but what they can do is create an atmosphere of complete equality, understanding and non-judgement.

Community is key to inclusion, and Femi and Grace’s focus is breaking down attitudinal barriers. Even simply advertising their South London Raspberry Jam’s as Autism and Tourette’s Syndrome friendly was breaking down a barrier, encouraging people to reach out and feel comfortable discussing their child’s needs, whereas they might not have otherwise.  

At each session they have a break-out space where the young coders can go if they need some time-out, if those with autism a meltdown or even if they just need to go have a run around. The fact that coding workshops are taught by Femi on one of his fellow young coders, on a peer-to-peer level also really helps the young participants to feel comfortable and learn at their own pace. Parents are encouraged to stay, as Grace points out, they know their children best. It's a collaborative effort of support and inclusion.

Since the beginning of 2019, Femi and his other young coding friends have set up their own Young Coders Meetups which are based at Red Hat's Open Innovation Labs. They decide what aspects of technology they would like to explore and focus on creating a 'diverse' coding community that's both inclusive and give them an opportunity to social and talk about the projects they are working on. It's based on agile principles where continuous feedback and reflection is encouraged through open communication and surveys handed out at the end of each session.

The road to diversity beyond disability

A digital era love of gaming makes technology a great vehicle for Femi and Grace at workshop with girl sitting at computerbringing all young people together. In line with widening the net of inclusion, Grace and Femi have been focusing on improving BME diversity and gender parity within the coding community. As a strong female figurehead for the organisation, it is clear how passionate Grace is about gender inclusivity. By encouraging the young coders to invite a female young person to the meet-up when organising subsequent sessions, the meetups have gone from a ratio of 1 in 6 girls to a 50/50 gender parity. 

Taking coding to the Tourette’s community - Working with Tourette’s Action

For the past few years Femi and Grace have been hosting coding workshops at various TicFests organised by Tourette’s Action. These popular family weekend events consist of activities, fun, games and most importantly a safe space for parents and children with Tourette’s Syndrome to get together as a community. 

Grace tells me how some parents of children with Tourette’s Syndrome can be wary of attending some of their events, explaining that Tourette’s Syndrome can be a “visible disability which can attract unwelcome attention and comments when they go to new places”, especially when the child has verbal ticks.

Running coding workshops at 100% Tourette’s Syndrome inclusive events like TicFest can remove this fear of judgement, for both parents and children. It is amazing the difference a completely positive and understanding environment can make. Grace fondly recalls parents’ surprise at their children, who usually couldn’t sit still for ten minutes, becoming completely absorbed in coding for two hours. The events are also great fun for Femi, who (amusingly, Grace reassures) even picks up other children’s ticks! These do disappear after a couple of days!

On working at TicFest, Grace sumps up the importance of inclusive events to families: “It energizes you and makes you more resilient”.

What’s next for Femi?

As he balances school, exams and friends, Femi never takes his eye off constantly improving inclusivity and sharing his passion for coding with others. Just next week he is delivering a key-note speech at the UK-Asean Business council on the impact of technology on young people. He is also busy working with the Diana Award and is forging links with the department of international trade. For his coding, he is busy developing an app to help deaf children with literacy. All of this is in addition to his inclusive community work with the Young Coders Meet Ups.

What does Femi want to be when he’s older? An ethical hacker. We have no doubt he will achieve whatever he sets his mind to- and we’re excited to see the journey!

“If you want to know more about Tourette’s Syndrome - you are welcome to ask me via Twitter at @hackerfemo or contact Tourette’s Action at @tourettesaction who are awesome.” - Femi

Nominations have now closed for the 2019 Tech4Good awards, but you can follow us on Facebook and visit our website to keep up to date with the finalists announced on 11th June!