By Michelle Caffrey  –  Reporter, Philadelphia Business Journal

Jan 3, 2018, 2:59pm EST

A Philadelphia startup announced a major partnership with the state on Tuesday that it says will help prepare more than 1,500 city students with cognitive disabilities to enter the workplace.

At an event held with district educators Tuesday, Northern Liberties-based Digitability celebrated the integration of its pre-employment and work-ready programming model into 17 high schools as part of the partnership with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

“When we implement the program in the school district of Philadelphia, with such a large number of students, we’re creating a pipeline of qualified candidates into organizations,” said Michele McKeone, Digitability's founder and CEO.

Aimed at students between 14 and 21 with diverse neurological needs, the program takes a holistic approach to preparing students for jobs through a combination of technology training and behavior modification using streamlined evidence-based practices. Through the state partnership, it comes at no cost to the district.

Digitability’s work addresses a pervasive issue of unemployment among adults with cognitive disabilities. According to federal data, about 32 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are employed and McKeone said if they do have jobs, they’re often pigeonholed into the three Fs — food, flowers and filth.

She wants to help change that by arming students with social, emotional and technical skills to work in a much wider range of professional positions, from data entry to web design.

Learning the hard skills is important, she said, but often the biggest hurdle can be teaching students with cognitive disabilities how to interact and communicate in an office. Addressing both needs at once can change the numbers, she said, as about 70 percent of Digitabilities graduates in its first cohort are employed.

“In the workplace, you’re also responsible for managing your time, your tasks. You also have to learn about problem-solving, flexibility, all of those other skills beyond what the job role is,” said McKeone, who developed the program after working as a high school special education teacher in the city's school district for seven years. When her work building tech skills into the classroom resulted in her students winning third place in the Philadelphia Regional Computer Fair Competition in 2010, she knew she had to expand her reach.

“It’s a clear demonstration of leveling the playing field, having people with neurodiverse needs compete with neurotypical peers,” she said. After presenting her business plans in competitions in 2011 and 2013, she eventually left teaching in 2015 to start running Digitability full-time. In 2016, McKeone raised a $500,000 seed round, with half coming from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

“Leaving the classroom was very hard. I loved teaching, but the impact I really wanted to have was larger than my classroom. I knew there were other teachers who needed these resources," she said.

A notable factor of Digitability’s program is its scale. While smaller nonprofits and organizations tackle workforce development among young adults with cognitive disabilities, they’re not often at the scale Digitability is reaching through its most recent partnerships and those in the works for the future.

Since the partnership is statewide, they’re looking to launch in Pittsburgh next, she said. It already operates in five states. The Philadelphia launch is so far the company’s largest.

“We’re able to have a very scalable impact across the city, the state and the country,” McKeone said.

To develop both sides of the equation, Digitability is also focused on preparing businesses for bringing on employees with neurodiverse needs through helping them form a strategy and then working with them to set up specific tracks, simulations and certifications within the program that match employers’ needs.

“We’re working to create an ecosystem with partnerships with the state and employees who want to learn about neurodiversity and learning more about neurodiversity strategies at workplaces.

There is a distinct and growing gap between the demand for workers in and around the tech industry and available, prepared employees.

A study released by the Economy League last May stressed the importance of the tech sector when it comes to overall growth but outlined that thousands of jobs in the field remain unfilled.

That growth isn’t just demand for high-level coders and engineers. Another report, this time from the Brookings Institution and also released last May, estimated that as much as 57 percent of 104,000 well-paying, middle-skill jobs positions in the city’s “innovation district” of West Market in Center City and University City are in adjacent support positions that don’t require a four-year degree.

Here's a link to the original story on the Philadelphia Business Journal: