Debra Ruh makes high-tech available to the disabled

Her company, TechAccess, works with businesses large and small to ensure the disabled can use their products.

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    Debra Ruh and her daughter, Sara. Ruh runs TechAccess, a company that helps makes technology more accessible to people with disabilities.
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Debra Ruh’s life changed dramatically when her four-month-old daughter, Sara, was diagnosed with Down syndrome.

While the news was devastating, Ms. Ruh decided to turn her family’s challenge into a blessing and a redirection.

Harnessing her technological expertise, Ruh started TecAccess, a company with the core mission of making Information and Communication Technologies more accessible, notably to those with disabilities.

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“We make sure technology is accessible to everybody,” Ruh says. “Everything that we choose to put out on the internet [as well as the newest gadgets on the market] … all of that should be accessible to people with disabilities.”

Working with corporations and businesses large and small, Ruh’s Rockville, Va.-based company aims to ensure that those with any disabilities, whether physical, developmental, or mental, have the same access to web pages, videos, programs, and tech products as do those without disabilities.

Her firm has worked with prominent companies such as Canon, Dell, HP, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Bank of America, among others, to help them meet accessibility mandates, serve as models for best practices, and reach an audience that is often left out of the market.

Her firm has also studied the accessibility of websites for Best Buy, Walgreens, and CVS, among others.

“These large, multinational companies – they truly do want their products and services to be fully accessible,” says Ruh, adding that there is a business opportunity in broadening the market for a given company’s products. One in three American households is touched by a disability, Ruh says, making these families a sizable market.

It's also important that those with disabilities have access to social media sites. “By not including people with disabilities, we are increasing the digital divide,” she says.

"Practice what you preach” has not been lost on Ruh: A majority of her own employees are disabled.

“We just welcome technologists with disabilities into our workforce,” Ruh says. Her staff includes members who are blind, hard of hearing, quadriplegic, and bipolar, as well as those diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, and severe depression.

“Companies still don’t see the value in employing people with disabilities,” she says, adding that her company sees it as making sense, especially given its mission.

Many people are not born with disabilities, but rather acquire them at some point in their lives, she says. But that does not mean they cannot be good employees whose expertise and skills can be harnessed.

The recession has hit her company hard, and Ruh has worked out a merger with another company with the same mission – SSB Bart Group. Today, the two function together, harnessing shared resources and client bases.

Ruh says she feels a purpose behind what she is doing and a calling that she strives to serve.

“I have a story that is unfolding, and I’ve been fascinated watching it unfold – and at times stressed out watching it unfold,” she says during a phone interview.

At the center of that story is her daughter, Sara.

She recalls the shock that came after her daughter’s diagnosis, which neither she nor her husband had even considered during her pregnancy. While there have been struggles, Ruh says, she calls her daughter to be a blessing.

“We've always lived our lives like that,” she says. “Sara was always a gift. It’s not a tragedy.”

Sara is now 24, and she remains the focal point of her mother’s efforts.

Ruh says there's still a need for a better understanding of disabilities in America.

“We still tend to look at people with disabilities with sadness or the charity model,” she says. “People are still very uneducated on the topic … [but] there are too many people impacted to ignore it.”

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