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.