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May 29, 2015

Fearless Leader: Michele McKeone

Fearless Leader Education
Michele McKeone Stefan Suchanec/for PhillyVoice

Michele McKeone is the founder and CEO of Digitability, formerly known as Autism Expressed.

Michele McKeone launched the digital-literacy program Autism Expressed in July 2012 after seeing first-hand that her autistic students at South Philadelphia High School lacked the online know-how necessary in today's workforce. 

Out to prove those kids and adolescents can learn the skills they need -- to use Google Drive, Gmail, Google Docs, social media, etc. -- she developed training software that's packaged in the form of a game. The goal of that "game" is to improve educational outcomes, drive job opportunities for post-secondary special education adults and refine time-management skills. 

In February, 32-year-old McKeone left her teaching job of seven years to propel her bootstrapped Autism Expressed startup forward in the form of Digitability, a rebranding that extends the program to kids with other cognitive disabilities. 

Here, McKeone chats about Digitability, leaving her job and what being fearless means to her.

How does Digitability work?

After an assessment, students watch video animation modules from our extensive library of lessons that break down concepts using principles of applied behavior analysis. Then, they complete a guided activity to ensure comprehension. The experience feels like a game to the learner, as they earn and unlock virtual badges to reinforce their success. Teachers and parents receive automatic emails with supplemental materials so they can extend the learning and make it social and interactive with games and activities. Our system includes pre-assessments and analytics so there is performance data to incorporate progress into individualized education program and transition planning.

Our system also includes on-demand professional development for teachers -- they are developing a whole new set of tools to reach new learning goals and objectives using Google products.

You recently broadened the demographic Autism Expressed serves. Why?

While our program is being used in autistic support classrooms throughout the Philadelphia School District, serving more than 100 students, teachers and administrators have recognized the benefits of our program and see how it could impact other students with developmental disabilities. The initial success of the program in autistic support classrooms will lead to the expansion of the program in other special education environments, serving students with other special education classifications beyond autism.

This is a common trend among our clients. The Bancroft School, a private school in New Jersey, has also been utilizing our program for the past two years. Through Bancroft, our program serves individuals with and without autism, including adults who have experienced traumatic brain injury.

That is one of the reasons we are undergoing a rebrand from Autism Expressed to Digitability. Our program is designed to bridge the academic gap and equalize opportunities for all learners. ...

Why did you pick digital literacy skills as your issue to champion?

In today’s technology-driven society and economy, digital skills are essentials for work, communication and socialization. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, more than 50 percent of today’s jobs require some degree of technology skills, and experts say that percentage will increase to 77 percent in the next decade. The lack of access to these skills limits the extent to which they can participate in a technology-driven economy and society.

Parents and educational organizations are increasingly looking to technological innovation to address the unique learning challenges of this population. However, the vast majority of these new technologies have focused on early developmental interventions for students aged 0 to 5, neglecting the market for adults with autism.

The lack of scalable education solutions for adults with autism has produced a major financial burden on families and caretakers, with the cost of caring for an individual with autism over their lifetime now at $2.3 million. It's also limited the ability of these individuals to pursue employment opportunities, with less than 50 percent of students with autism and 21 percent of the disabled community more broadly participating in some form of employment or post-secondary education two years after leaving high school -- versus 69 percent of the non-disabled population. ...

While getting people to understand the importance of teaching autistic kids and students with other disabilities these skills, what's the biggest hurdle you face?

I think that there are still social and psychological barriers in society that often prevent people from understanding what individuals with cognitive disabilities are capable of. At the same time, the services, to specifically support adolescents in their transition to independence are still lacking. However, we're starting to see schools, researchers and the government take steps to address the gaps in services for a very large and growing population.

You recently left South Philadelphia High School to do Digitability full time. How hard was it to leave behind your job as a teacher?

Leaving teaching was a hard decision, but it was one I had to make. I launched the company while still in the classroom and learned a lot from being so close to my target user and customer. However, if I wanted to truly grow the company, I knew that I needed to dedicate more time to generating leads and demoing our program. Since then, we grew from three organizations to 12, mainly in the northeast region of the U.S. We also learned that our program is not just effective for students with autism but for students with a wide range of disabilities, such as intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, speech and language issues and more. That is why we will be rebranding the program in late 2015 to Digitability.

Recall a moment when you felt brave.

While I think it is more their achievement than mine, I watched my students grow tremendously; one, in particular, grew more than I could ever imagine. He was nonverbal, diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy and was one of my favorites. We'll call him 'Isaac.' When Isaac first came into my class, he did not interact with other students at all. He stimmed or rocked bath and forth, flapping his hands for most of the day. Isaac didn't want to do any work unless he had one-on-one support. While he could make utterances and had the desire to communicate, he never developed his full language abilities. He often got frustrated when he wasn't understood and had temper tantrums.

However, over the years Isaac’s behavior and desire to be social improved dramatically. When the job-training director came to evaluate who would be an appropriate candidate for on-site work, he did not want to accept this student for the program. This would have furthered the existing paradigm of pigeonholing individuals with disabilities into unemployment. It didn't matter that he had his own blog, website, interest -- especially in hip hop, preferring the West Coast kind -- and learned some basic html skills -- everything, I might add, that the director of the job training program could not do. Didn't matter. He could only see Isaac’s limited verbal ability.

Advocating for my students entailed a lot of shaking my tiny fist. I often needed to confront people’s subconscious bias and uneasiness towards my students with disabilities. Whether it was getting a student to be included in a general education classroom, participating in special programs or being considered for a job training programs, I often had to push people beyond their comfort level to ensure that my students were gaining access to the programs and supports they were entitled to by law. I was going to make sure that Isaac had every opportunity that he deserved. And he did. Eventually, the job-training director came to really appreciate Isaac; in fact, his heart had been stolen by this remarkable person.

Because Isaac had this experience, he is now in a better position, with more skills and training for his transition after high school.

What Philadelphian inspires you?

My former classroom partner, Mrs. Michelle Evans. She is an amazingly beautiful person who always has such a positive outlook on life. She has always been a source of strength for me when facing daily challenges, both in the classroom and as I built Autism Expressed.

What does being a ‘fearless leader’ mean to you?

It means not being afraid to do what’s unpopular if it’s the right thing to do. It means shaking your tiny fist at people to advocate for individuals who have not learned to advocate for themselves -- yet.