Debra Ruh | Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Interview with Debra Ruh, TecAccess LLC

Debra Ruh

Debra Ruh scanned the American employment landscape in 2001 and saw no meaningful opportunities for her then-13-year-old daughter Sara, who has Down's syndrome. When somebody suggested Sara could work collecting shopping carts from the parking lot at a local mall, Ruh knew her daughter could do better. Then a vice president in charge of technology training at a mortgage bank, Ruh launched a company that would find meaningful full-time jobs for her daughter and others with physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities.

Five years later, TecAccess LLC of Rockville, Va., works with federal government agencies and large corporations to assess electronic and IT accessibility and compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires public and private entities to deliver technology that is accessible to people with disabilities. TecAccess, a Small Business Administration 8(a) certified company, small disadvantaged business and a woman-owned company, has 60 employees, more than 50 of whom are compliance testers with disabilities.

Ruh spoke with Staff Writer Ethan Butterfield about accessibility issues in the workplace and what the future of employment holds for those with disabilities.

WT: Are agencies and companies becoming Section 508-compliant?

Ruh: Progress has been made. Are we there yet? Absolutely not. Do we still have a long way to go? Yes.

A lot of people consider 508 a failure, but we have many examples of companies and agencies doing the right thing. We need to get the awareness out there, we need to let people know that this can, and should, be done.

The answer can't be ? and we don't hear this anymore, but we did hear it in the beginning ? "Well, we don't have anybody on our staff or in our agency that's blind." That's not the appropriate answer. In the first place, you don't know. Second, it's not just about people who are blind. And third, it's the law.

WT: What's the market opportunity for companies that develop disabled-accessible technology?

Ruh: There's a huge market. First, it's not just an American problem. Populations all over the world are aging; Japan is aging faster than we are. And statistics indicate that after the age of 65, 46 percent of us develop disabilities.

We know that, as of the last U.S. Census, 54 million Americans have a disability, and it was estimated that they had $175 billion of discretionary income, which they could use to travel and buy retail goods. But we don't even know how big the market is.

WT: What advice do you have for people with disabilities who want to work in IT?

Ruh: It's important to focus on your positives and make it easy for the employer to hire you. Come in armed with a strong resume and a great attitude. Know the assistive technology that you need and, if at all possible, bring it with you. And get your own training. If you go to an employer and say, "I'm going to need this, and I'm going to need that," you turn employers off.

WT: What would you say to a company that is considering hiring a disabled person to work in IT?

Ruh: Who better to test to see if something is successful or 508-compliant than a person who is blind? Who better to know if it really works than a person with mobility impairment? Years ago, I would hear lectures where people would say, "Just close your eyes, and try to think like a blind person." Well, there's a lot more to being blind than closing your eyes. There's a lot more to being in a wheelchair than hopping into that chair for 10 minutes and seeing if you can get over curbs.

WT: What else can be done to bring more disabled workers into the workplace? Is there further legislation that would push the issue?

Ruh: Legislation doesn't always seem to be effective. Members of Congress should be looking for opportunities.

We have soldiers returning from Iraq with severe disabilities ? what are we going to do with them? Why can't we put them into agencies and teach them to be 508 coordinators or testers? Why can't we use the laws to look for opportunities to hire people with disabilities, especially if they've sacrificed for our country?

WT: Which agencies are leaders in working with the disabled?

Ruh: The Department of Education is a huge leader, so are the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service, General Services Administration and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. There are others, but those really stand out as leaders.

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