DEBRA RUH — Hire Talent, Now!

Title: Tapping Into Disability. Image: Debra Ruh stands with diverse members of the TecAccess team.
Members of the TecAccess team, (left to right) Raymond, Loretta, Debra Ruh, Sara Ruh. Photographed by David Yellen

In 1987 while working as a systems administrator and executive in the banking industry, Debra Ruh gave birth to a beautiful girl, Sara, who was perfect and happened to have Down syndrome. Ruh found the world had very low expectations for Sara. Later, Ruh was drawn to Virginia for both work and better educational opportunities for Sara, but found the expectations for her daughter, now a teenager, were still low. This proved to be a pivotal time for her life path.

As a technologist and businesswoman, Debra Ruh went on to create an award-winning technology company that employed talented persons with disabilities and provided tangible value for companies and their workforce.

ABILITY Magazine’s Marge Plasmier sat down with Ruh, who is currently CEO of Ruh Global Communications, to talk about her new book, Tapping Into Hidden Human Capital and how companies who are not employing persons with disabilities are truly missing out and not meeting their full potential both in the workforce and in the marketplace.

Debra Ruh: So the experts started telling us how Sara wouldn’t really ever add any value to employment, maybe she could bring shopping carts in from a Target or a Wal-Mart. I sat there thinking, “My daughter’s 13 years old. She’s going to be in school until she’s 22. And that is the biggest-reach goal you have for this young lady, that she could bring shopping carts in from the mall? That’s it?” It just woke me up to the employment issues involving people with disabilities.

I decided that I was going to make a difference. I quit my job in the banking industry and created a company called TecAccess. It was a technology firm focused at the time on building websites, but it was going to employ people with disabilities. I did it as a for-profit company because I wanted to prove a for-profit company could employ people with disabilities, especially severe disabilities, and thrive.

I realized pretty quickly that there were so many people doing web design, and it was hard to differentiate yourself. But around that time, there was a law that was being refreshed, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. So I thought, “You know what would be really cool is if we could teach people to make the websites accessible to all of us.”

Marge Plasmier: At what year was that?

Ruh: In 2001. I didn’t know you had to code a certain way so that people with disabilities could have access to the information. So that’s when I thought, “Wow! What a great idea!” And it just unfolded. I built the company to a multimillion-dollar business. Eighty percent of my team were technologists with disabilities.

It was all focused on mainly helping corporations, but we also had government and university clients, making sure their websites were accessible to people with disabilities. And who better to do it than the people who have those types of disabilities and who would know whether it’s successful? At the time, very few of my competitors employed people with disabilities. I just kicked their butts. I did so well.

Ruh and daughter, Sara, speak with a visitor to their booth at a conference. Background: Display poster of "Tapping Into Hidden Capital"
Debra Ruh (L) and daughter, Sara (R) are all smiles while Debra signs her book for a fan.

Plasmier: So in the early 2000s, you already had a game plan. What value did people with disabilities bring to your company?

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Ruh: They were such amazing employees. It was interesting because I also employed people, a smaller segment, who didn’t have disabilities. But I found that the technologists with disabilities were more productive. They showed up more often than the people without disabilities, they whined less, they were very creative and innovative, and they were really my top performers.

And then I found that the more I involved them with my clients, the clients loved it. And so it became a huge differentiator for us. Our competition—we were just beating them terribly.

Plasmier: You talk about that a lot in your book. That was the big differentiator for your business?

Ruh: Yeah, it was a huge differentiator. And I won so many awards. And I thought, “That is great for my ego, and my mom’s proud of me for winning all these awards, but the only thing I’m doing differently is employing qualified technologists with disabilities.” I hoped for a world some day that wouldn’t think it was so unusual to employ talented people with disabilities who were qualified to do the jobs.

Plasmier: For the people who were working for your company who had disabilities, what did they bring to the table?

Ruh: What they brought to the table was a real understanding of accessibility. Because, at the time we were trying to figure out exactly what it meant to code a website, a mobile app or anything so that it’s accessible to all of us. How can you do it in a way that works for people who are blind, deaf, aging, losing their mobility, etc.?

They brought creativity. “How do you make a website accessible to screen readers in a way that doesn’t change the product?” That’s what everybody was really concerned about at the time… creating something just in text. It was going to be boring, and the rest of the customers aren’t going to like it. So we were able to show that’s not true, and we were able to build real awareness about the value people with disabilities brought not only to my workforce but also to other people’s workforce.

I remember saying, “I know that I’m going to be successful when my clients or others start stealing my employees from me.” When it started happening, I wasn’t happy. I was happy, but I wasn’t happy because I was losing these really talented individuals.

Plasmier: I think I may have met one or two of them at the CSUN (Technology and Persons with Disabilities) Conference.

Ruh: Yeah, you probably did. They’re top of the field. They’re the best. And that is what should be happening. We should be creating really amazing jobs for these individuals who are so talented.

Plasmier: Your book, Tapping Into Hidden Human Capital, was a very concise road map for companies. When I finished reading it, my initial thought was, “Why wouldn’t people hire, incorporate or identify more people with disabilities in the workforce?”

Ruh: And I love that comment, because that’s what I tried to do. I wrote it for employers to demystify this issue and take away some of the misinformation.

Plasmier: Why don’t employers hire people with disabilities?

Ruh: Companies are afraid that if their facilities aren’t accessible, even after 26 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they’re going to get sued.

They’re afraid that their websites and their intranet, internet and software systems are not accessible to assistive technology that a person might use. They’re afraid the assistive technology might be really expensive. They’re afraid that people with disabilities are going to be out sick more or they’re going to say the wrong thing. Another thing employers are afraid of is that we’re expecting them to hire somebody who’s not qualified to do the job.

Plasmier: What do you say to a company that has these fears?

Ruh: First of all, I say, “I understand you have all these legitimate fears. Let me tell you why they’re not true.” Then I go point by point, and there’s so much great data out there proving it’s not true. And then where we are right now with employment, you do not have a choice if you’re in the U.S. You have to employ people with disabilities in your workforce. If you’re not, you’re probably breaking a law or multiple laws. It’s not, should you do it? You have to do it.

You probably already have people with disabilities working for you, by the way. It’s about retention, too. And people who work for you are acquiring disabilities because we are in these fragile bodies. I don’t mean that as a threat, but as we age and as we live our lives, quite a few of us acquire disabilities.

But any time you’re broaching something new that you don’t understand, instead of just jumping in, why don’t you put a plan together? Understand what you have to do. You can say, ‘Oh, yes, we’re hiring people with disabilities,’ but if your website is not accessible, if the career portion of your website is not accessible, if you don’t know how to accommodate an individual with a visible disability or invisible disability, there are a lot of ways to get in trouble right now in the US with this. ADA lawsuits are up 63 percent from this time a year ago.

Plasmier: Lawsuits are up 63 percent from last year? Why do you think that is?

Ruh: We can do a bunch of lawyer jokes here, but part of the role that lawyers play in US society is pounding out our laws. We’ve had the ADA law on the books for 26 years, and many, many, many businesses are not accessible physically or technologically. And employers are not employing people with disabilities. I’d like employers to do it because they get innovative, creative, talented employees and because we have studies, which I’ve mentioned in the book, that prove customers want companies to do hire people with disabilities, and employees become more productive. If it takes a lawyer suing a company to do it, they have to include us in the workforce no matter what. Period. End of story. I don’t want to hear your excuses any more. Sorry.

Plasmier: Get on your soapbox, by all means!


In comparison to the settlements these companies have to endure and legal fees, what is the cost of making a company accessible?

Ruh: It’s really not very expensive at all. You can even make your company fully accessible without paying one penny outside. There’s so much free information on the internet. WebAIM, for example, gives step-by-step instructions of everything a company needs to do, and there’s WC3. You can join things like AXSChat that we run every Tuesday. We talk about it. You do have to update your policies and processes.

I can’t talk about this topic of employment without talking about accessibility. If you have an individual who gets into a car accident or has a stroke, and they’ve been a great employee and have a lot of good intellectual data, you don’t want to just kick them to the curb. You want to work with people.

Plasmier: That’s the change of our humanity. We’re aging, time passes and we acquire a disability?

Ruh speaks behind a podium at a Voice of America Seminar. Right: Ruh speaks in front of projection screen that reads "ICT is changing the World for PwD.Ruh: Right. And a lot of us keep disabilities quiet because we don’t want somebody to look at us and judge us and decide we’re less. A man, who was at the very top of a very large government agency, said, “Well, I have multiple sclerosis, but I haven’t told anybody because if I tell them, they’ll start thinking that I can’t add any value. I think my peers will start thinking it’s time for me to retire. They’ll start pitying me.”

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD, which made a lot of sense to me. I’ve struggled my whole life with depression, sometimes really bad depression. I believe I’m a better communicator because of the ADHD. I believe that because of the depression I’m more empathetic to others. I think that all of us have abilities and disabilities, and some of us, maybe we have more obvious disabilities than others, but it doesn’t mean that we’re broken and we can’t add value.

I talk about Rosemary Musachio in my book, who’s one of my team members. Since the box isn’t made for her, she’s always outside the box. She’s always thinking so creatively and innovatively.

Plasmier: What about the value people with disabilities bring to that so-called bottom line? That’s a big thing. It’s a way to move the needle with these companies.

Ruh: And that’s the language they understand.

Plasmier: What’s the bottom line, the down-the-line benefit of having people with disabilities in your workforce?

Ruh: One of my favorite stories is about Canon. A few years ago Canon decided they wanted to be more environmentally friendly. So they hired a small team, about 20 people, with intellectual disabilities, outside Chicago in Naperville. They worked with a service provider to bring people in and taught them how to take broken cameras apart. They learned about all of the pieces, which piece was destroyed and needed to be sustainably thrown away, the right way, which pieces could be fixed, and which pieces were still good.

In that one location of about 7,000 employees, the overall productivity across the plant went up by 36 percent. The only thing that was different was the little group of individuals with disabilities who were working for Canon.

Plasmier: That was the only thing they changed?

Ruh: It was the only thing. And they started interviewing their employees. And the employees said, “I’m very proud to work for Canon. I like going to lunch with Joe, who has Down syndrome, or Donna, who has autism. It makes me proud to work for Canon and to be so socially evolved.” When people are proud to work for a company, they’re more productive.

The employer of choice has become more important than ever. It’s become more important to be a socially responsible company. One way they can prove they’re socially responsible is by employing a diverse workforce that includes qualified people with disabilities and retaining people with disabilities

Plasmier: Not only is it social achievement, but what about the monetary benefit?

Ruh: When you make things accessible to individuals with disabilities, it becomes more usable for everybody, which improves the bottom line. Another bottom-line benefit: why would you build any technology that 20 percent of the population might not be able to use?

A good example is Comcast. They’ve made sure their machines—their DVRs and all of their equipment—are fully accessible to everybody. They have talking remotes, and the different machines will talk to you. The Comcast guy came and was explaining to my mom how to use it. My mom was getting really overwhelmed. He started talking to her about these talking features, where it would talk her through it. I got excited because I knew they had done that for their clients with disabilities, but it benefited older people as well. This man was so proud of this company. Employees need to feel proud about the companies they work for.

Plasmier: Kevin Bradley of The Boeing Company talked about how hiring people with disabilities is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Ruh: It is. Why would you ever want to leave people out? If you have two equally qualified people with equal degrees and the same amount of past history, but one is in a wheelchair, I would pick the person in a wheelchair over the other candidate because the person in the wheelchair has had to work harder to get there.

Plasmier: Now we’re talking about affirmative action.

Ruh: We are.

Plasmier: How is that happening? Is it happening?

Ruh: I see it, but I will tell you I’m not as much looking at it from that lens. There are a lot of people looking at it from that lens, such as our Department of Labor, our Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and vocational rehabilitation people. I’m always looking at it from the corporate lens.

Plasmier: Disability Rights activist Emily Ladau is one of your contributors.

Ruh: Oh, yes! She’s a rock star.

Plasmier: She has very strong feelings about herself as a person with a disability and her value.

Ruh: Yeah, she says, ‘Don’t hire me because I’m a person with a disability. Hire me because I’m a rock star, and you’ll be lucky to get me.’

Don’t you want that employee? You do want that employee. If you do not recognize the value of employing people with disabilities, your competitors do. And be prepared to start failing, because you’re going to fail. We’re evolving with or without you.

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