Melvin Hines, CEO and Founder at Upswing, pushes his team to appropriately empathize with their users, a tactic that spilled over to how they interact with institution partners. Accessibility is “reflexive,” meaning that only by stepping out of your established circle can you identify the holes in what may have seemed from the other side, to have already been accommodated.
— Val Schreiner, formerly of Turnitin
What does the term “accessibility” mean to you at this moment? Is there a personal or professional reason why this definition is important to you?
When I think of accessibility, I think of leveling the playing field for all people regardless of how similar or dissimilar they may be from the creators of the technology. To me, it goes beyond just disability accommodation and focuses more on ensuring that technology creators are involving more diverse potential users in their tools.
The topic of accessibility has special significance for me. I went to an inner-city, underfunded high school, where over 15% of my classmates needed special accommodations. Over 90% were African-American. These two numbers aren’t coincidental—blacks are more likely than other groups to need special accommodations. Unfortunately, the current structure of governmental accommodations made it difficult to receive these accommodations. It was this lack of support that led me to later work for a legal nonprofit where we pushed for changes in the IEP policy so that there would be better and stronger accessibility standards for students with unique needs.
How do you support or encourage greater accessibility or the awareness of limits to accessibility in education or as a professional in the education space?
Here at Upswing, we are working to keep students on track toward graduation, getting them the support services they need and clapping down on college attrition. To do that effectively, we need to ensure that our staff can appropriately empathize with our users. Originally, this meant that we only hired staff who came from backgrounds similar to our users. The idea was that then we would appropriately be considering the needs of those who access our products. But as we’ve grown over time, we’ve pushed toward incorporating our institution partners—the colleges we work with—into the product development cycle. This is a reflexive process. It’s not until you step outside of your circle, your place of employment and the people you work with every day, that you see the gaps in your programs, however well intentioned they may be.
By bringing colleges into our product cycle, they get an outsider’s view of their own programs, and the reverse is also true. Our Upswing staff has gained different insights into our users’ needs as well as the limitations in the types of accommodations that many of our underfunded institutions can offer. The takeaway is that by including outsiders in process and project development, you shine a light on the limitations in your own educational institution or the service you offer as a vendor.
Where do you see a great example of improved accessibility either in education or in general?
Sometimes it is the small things such as website accessibility. We see this all the time when a site changes based on WCAG 2.0 standards. WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are not only guidelines for websites, but they are also helpful to small companies who may not have the resources to do their own accessibility studies or detailed evaluations.
When we originally created Upswing, you could do the expected, like book a tutoring session on our website. Over time, however guided by standards created by other organizations, we’ve continued to make scheduling sessions not only easier but more accessible. Unless you are looking for them, those accessibility changes may not be noticeable like offering alternative texts or changing colors and adding audio/video/chat by default in every session. But if you need those things, they stand out. We realized we could improve accessibility by making changes that might be unnoticeable to everyone but make it dramatically easier for those who needed the accommodations and in turn, make it easier for everybody.
Last year, we launched a new initiative to give students the ability to schedule sessions and more, using text messages. Now, students with special needs can use the accessibility functions in their local devices to communicate with Upswing, and while that seems small, that is a dramatic improvement in accessibility.
Where do you see a discernable need for improved accessibility in education or in general?
I think that in the last decade or so, we have had better accessibility now than when I was in high school. We shouldn’t forget how far we’ve come. At the same time, there is still a way to go. The most obvious place for improvement is in the realm of video conferencing. COVID-19 has forever changed the education delivery landscape, but that also means the gap for accessibility is decreasing. Social requirements such as making video mandatory, and limitations such as lack of captioning are just some ways the “new normal” hasn’t kept up pace with accessibility needs.
What do you recommend as a first step for companies looking to improve the accessibility of their products or services?
A first step is in their most obvious place, their websites. Checking out WCAG 2.0 Level A requirements and then making changes to meet compliance will ensure that creators have, at minimum, the basic requirements satisfied. These changes are not very difficult to implement.
How do you get outside input into design and development at your company? Who are your partners or outside experts?
Aside from the standard WCAG requirements, we mostly rely on our users and institution partners to help us identify areas of improvement. For example, we have worked with West Georgia Technical College and Borough of Manhattan Community College to continuously improve our products for accessibility purposes.
What is something the general public misses about equity and accessibility in educational or technology tools?
I think the biggest thing people miss is how the accessibility equity gap perpetuates the chasm between educational attainment and opportunity for minorities and low income students. As I mentioned earlier, blacks are the most likely to have an accessibility need. We also have a large, growing wealth gap compared to whites. For those of us who believe education is the path to close this gap, we must think about how to make accessibility a part of the conversation. And remember that accessibility is not a race issue or demographic issue or a disability issue separated and in isolation; It is all of those issues together.
A few months ago, we received a heartfelt letter at Upswing from a parent of two students at West Georgia Tech College. Her two children had disabilities that contributed to their poor performances in class. She went on to tell us how working with Upswing coaches—some of whom also have disabilities and had empathy for her children—helped significantly improve the confidence in her children. In the end, they received A’s in their classes, and she told us that she was so grateful to Upswing for contributing to their success. So the things we do as tech companies to improve accessibility can have an immense impact on so many students out there.
Thinking about equity in education or technology, where and how can we improve?
Funny you should mention that. I’ve actually given a talk on this very topic. In the talk titled, Just Like Me: Why Creators of Education Technology Should Mirror Their Users’ Backgrounds, I spoke about many very public missteps that have occurred in technology as a result of a lack of empathy with all users. Some examples included the iPhone X launch and subsequent backlash because its facial recognition technology had trouble telling Asians apart. Another example was how TSA’s then-new body scanner technology falsely identified black women as suspicious at greater rates than other travelers.
The talk then progresses to how similar mistakes have been made in education technology, where companies—mostly led by affluent white males—have missed the mark in serving their mostly inner-city, black and brown users.
The moral of the story is that we can never have equity in education or technology if those crafting the technology don’t have the requisite backgrounds and experiences. We as creators must be more emphatic about ensuring our teams emulate our users.