In the mid- 1980’s, Debra Ruh was nurturing a successful career in the banking industry and looking forward to starting a family. But in 1987, her path took an unexpected turn after the birth of her daughter Sara. And today, that path has led her around the world to work with multi-national companies, nations, the UN and more. As an advocate for accessibility and inclusion, Debra has dedicated her life to improve the lives those with disabilities.
Chris Straigis – 0:02
Welcome to Scrappy, the podcast about small companies doing big things. I’m your host, Chris Straigis. We’ve been working hard to collect stories and interviews for our second season. But in light of all the recent changes we’ve been going through from politics to pandemics to protest, we’ve decided to change things up a bit. Instead of waiting to launch a whole new season that would run over just 10 short weeks, we are instead going to let loose a new episode continuously each month or so. And in that way, get more great stories out more often. And I couldn’t think of a better place to start this season, then a big anniversary that our country has coming up this weekend. One you may not even be aware of.
Chris Straigis – 0:52
30 years ago, on July 26 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law The Americans with Disabilities Act. This groundbreaking legislation was the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities. It would usher in a new era of rights, freedoms and care for one of our nation’s greatest untapped citizen resources. And it would bring into the fold an entire segment of our society that had for too long been marginalized, stigmatized, and second class. But 1990 was not the end of this work really, it was just the beginning. And today, the work continues with more momentum than ever before. And with a new era of advocates on the front lines, advocates like Debra Ruh.
Debra Ruh – 1:44
My name is Debra Ruh, and I’m the CEO and founder of Ruh Global Impact.
Chris Straigis – 1:49
Debra is kind of an unexpected hero in this fight. In the mid 1980s, she was nurturing a successful career in the banking industry and looking forward to starting a family. But in 1987, her path took an unexpected turn after the birth of her daughter Sarah. Before too long, she found herself forging her own way, employing an internal drive to help those in need – a drive that had long been waiting just below the surface.
Chris Straigis – 2:19
Debra, thank you for joining me today. There is so much that I look forward to learning about the work and advocacy that you’ve been doing for two decades now. But if we could, I want to start just a bit earlier. A young Debra Ruh was just coming of age in the turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s. How would the Debra of today describe that time and that little girl growing up in the deep south?
Debra Ruh – 2:48
Well, that’s a great, great question, Chris. And thank you so much for having me on your show, I really like your podcast. I am a baby boomer and I’m the later part of the baby boomers. And so I, the Vietnam War was going on and all the protests were going on and the hippie movements and burning the bras. And a lot of that was happening when I was in elementary school, in the beginning of, beginning into the middle school. Even then there was a lot of fighting about truly including African Americans in our society and why were we segregated, segregating everyone. And so there was a lot of turmoil. And there was a lot of turmoil, unfortunately, in my family, because my mother really, really struggled with mental health issues. And she was diagnosed as borderline personality disorder, which is a, it’s a really, really tough one. And she did, she did the very best she could and I understand that as an adult, but as a child, as a child, we just never knew what was going to happen from moment to moment, day to day. It was very turbulent inside the house. And so the outside world was just some other place that I didn’t completely understand. But it seemed like there was a lot of turmoil happening out there as well.
Debra Ruh – 2:59
In the midst of all that though, By the mid 70s, you were at the precipice of adulthood. And you were ready to sort of shape your future. What did you want to be when you grow up?
Debra Ruh – 4:29
Well, I wanted to be, I really wanted to be a journalist, even though I wasn’t a great writer, but I wanted to be a journalist. And then I thought, wait a minute, no, I think I’m gonna be a police officer because police officers, you know, help people and save the world. But I remember my father saying to me, no, you you can’t be a police officer Debra, you you won’t be able to handle it. Your heart is too tender. It’ll crush you. And so then I remember moving more to okay, I’m gonna be a psychiatrist. So I knew, I always knew I wanted to help people. I knew I wanted to make a difference. But at the same time, I was never encouraged to go to school and go to college. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so it was never, ever anything we talked about. We weren’t really encouraged to think about what’s your career and where you’re going to go.
Debra Ruh – 5:21
My both of my parents retired, they work their whole life and retired from AT&T. And when, when I graduated from high school, I graduated in 77, and my mom got me a job at AT&T. I was an overseas operator, so I was in that you see it in the shows the big switchboards, and people are plugging in the wires and stuff. I made really good money that time. I was making $35,000 a year plus expenses, which was great money… and I hated every single second of it. So after I did it for a year I thought, I’m doing this, and I quit. And I became a waitress. And I started working my way through college. But everybody was shocked, especially my mom. And she was so mad at me when I quit this really good job, but I just didn’t want to spend my whole life doing that. And so I guess I was a little bit of a renegade.
Chris Straigis – 6:23
You were in the mid 1980s. You’re in your mid 20s. You’re making good money before you quit. You met, where did you meet your husband? And when did you get married?
Debra Ruh – 6:32
I met him in the restaurant business. So when I quit AT&T, I went and started working at a restaurant. It’s not around anymore, but some people might remember it was called Victoria Station. And they had the best prime rib, it was the best prime rib. And it was modeled after the Victoria Station cars and so they actually would have a train, part of a train as part of the restaurant. I remember the first I met my husband when he had just moved there from Atlanta. I loved that he had such a gentleness about him and he felt very, very safe to me. And so that was very, very attractive, somebody that seems so stable and calm and, and gentle. And he is still that same way. We’ve been married 38 years in September.
Debra Ruh – 7:27
Unfortunately, my husband now has early onset dementia, because when he was a child when he was 11 years old, he was just getting a kite going, and if any of us anybody that’s ever gotten a kite, you finally get it going and get the airs lifted in as lifted though, you know, it’s flying. And he was running with it and he ran in front of a car, and the car hit him. He was 11. It threw him 750 feet. He actually died on the scene. They brought him back. They took him to the hospital, he was in a coma for a couple of weeks. And then he didn’t go back to school for months. And when he did go back to school, things were different for him. He used to be a straight-A student, and he was then you know, a medium student.
Debra Ruh – 8:14
And so, unfortunately, even though we have these amazing brains that rewire and figure out how to work around an injury, his brain was still very, very seriously injured. And so as he aged, the, the brain has aged into dementia. And that’s, that’s been a very interesting, you know, path. At the same time, but he still grew up, got married, had two children that worked, you know, in telecommunications, and so there was a success story, but it’s just now it’s, it’s so hard for him. It’s very hard for him, and it’s been hard for all of us. But there’s also beauty in it. There’s a very interesting beauty in this, this, this trip to this journey. Because my husband that was always there and gentle and kind and happy, um, not quite as high strung as his wife, he’s still there. But he’s lost a lot of processing abilities, but the soul, the person that he, that I fell in love with is still there. He still knows me. He still thinks I’m great. He’s still you know, he’s so patient with me. But so it’s interesting walking this because the person that makes him so important to me is still there.
Chris Straigis – 9:39
So, again, we’re gonna, I’m trusting my math here so you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, on a beautiful Easter day, I believe in 1987, you gave us to a daughter Sarah.
Debra Ruh – 9:53
Chris Straigis – 9:55
As as happens to anyone on their first child, and I can speak from experience, there’s a seismic shift. There’s, there’s a beauty and optimism for life and future, mixed though, with an absolute fear of not knowing what actually being a parent really means. I’m sure that like anyone else, you get that vision in your mind of a healthy, happy child growing up to be a productive, successful adult. It can be a really magical time, but in just a few short months, before you even settle down from that first seismic event, an even bigger one was about to hit. One that literally changed the course of your life. So can you tell me a little bit about the moment when everything changed for you?
Debra Ruh – 10:38
Yes, and thank you for asking. I wanted to have kids so bad. I was just one of those little girls that always wanted to have kids. And so when my husband and I got married when I was 23, we started trying and we, and nothing happened. But we would try and we would we try and we wouldn’t, and then when I was 28 I became pregnant. And I remember being just so excited that I was pregnant. And then as you said, Chris, and then I thought, wait a minute, I don’t think we’re qualified yet. So, but at that point, welcome. So when my daughter was actually born, I had this weird little thought float through my mind. And it when this thought floated through my mind, and I’ll say the thought the thought was, “wow, she looks like a little baby with down syndrome.” And immediately I thought, what would it, I don’t even know what a baby with down syndrome looks like. So I dismissed it.
Debra Ruh – 11:38
Four months later, the doctors were finding that she was having what they called ‘failure to thrive’. My beautiful, perfect little four-month-old baby. And when doctors started suspecting it was there was more, and they did the test and realize that she had Down Syndrome, and they called my husband and I… and this is a call that you know is not going to go well. I remember, I was at work, and I was working in telecommunications at a bank, and I get a call from the doctor’s office and they said, the doctor wants to see you and your husband today at 2:00. So my husband and I went in, and they told us that Sarah had Down Syndrome and they use the word Mongolism, which is no longer appropriate. They, they made comments about, you know, you could put her in an institution and, um, yeah, that’s not gonna happen. And I just, and what I, the first thing I blurted out, was, “well, I’m not telling my mother.” And the doctor said, “Deborah, you cannot hide that your daughter has Down Syndrome.” Oh yeah, you want to see? Oh yes I can. But it really did just, you know, change our world. And I didn’t think I knew anybody with a disability, which of course, I learned that’s ridiculous. But she I also had the gift that I already knew this this little girl I think she had been, you know, born four months before and she was so sweet and she was so loving and she was just just she was a great little baby. She still is a great woman. But at the same time, I did have to walk the steps denial. I’m not going to tell anybody. I remember, I drove one day through, through fast food. I remember it was a Hardee’s and the real sweet little teenager that was behind the window, as I drove up to get my my drink and food, she leaned out of the window and she said, “your baby so cute does she had Down Syndrome? Oh, she’s so beautiful. My brother has Down Syndrome.” And I felt like that teenager had stabbed me in the heart. I didn’t want people to know my daughter had Down Syndrome. I didn’t want to, I was still in that part of the journey. So it was, you know, life, life gives you a lot of opportunities to grow.
Chris Straigis – 14:09
With the lessons you were learning in, through the early years of Sara’s life by let’s say, by the 90s she’s she’s growing up and beginning to come of age just like that young Debra back in 1970s Gainesville. But the times obviously, are very different at this point. And so are young Sarah circumstances, obviously. What kind of unexpected challenges did you face, not just at home, but in society at large?
Debra Ruh – 14:39
The first thing I really hated right at the beginning, from the moment we found out, was how much people underestimated Sara, and how much people would learn that I that I had a daughter with Down Syndrome and they would say, “Oh, so sorry, it’s such a tragedy.” And I thought, well, why why is this such a tragedy? She’s a really cool kid. And she’s funny and she’s creative. And she’s it was a real smart alec and there was so many interesting things about her. And I didn’t understand why society couldn’t see. There wasn’t any information on how to raise her what to expect. There, you know, we were we were putting in her in early education and trying to give her advantages, but you were on your own unless you wanted to read the dark, dark, dark literature that was out at the time about people with Mongolism and all that it was just that they die really young. And the data that was out was all based on when we took babies and we put them in institutions. I didn’t have any support to go, you know, people just didn’t understand the journey. And I hope, I hope that’s better for parents now. I know that I’ve tried to be one of the leaders out there with information. But it was very, you’re alone, you just felt very alone.
Chris Straigis – 16:06
Well, you had mentioned Sara’s personality and and I have to expect that she gets her a lot of her personality traits, and specifically her optimism and resilience, from from you as well. I saw a story about how she made some friends on a bus ride to school.
Debra Ruh – 16:29
That’s a great story. I live in rural Virginia and my kids had a really long bus drive to school. And but I worked full time at the bank and my husband worked at Capital One. And so we we didn’t have the luxury of being able to drive them to school or anything. So a couple of houses down there were a couple of girls that lived there. And so they would get on the bus and Sara said to them one day, “hey, can I be your friend?” And the little girl said, “No, we don’t want to be your friend.” And seriously, why? And her brother was on the bus, he was so mad and some of the other kids were really mad too that these little girls did this. But they said, “no, we don’t want to be your friend.” So my daughter thought about it and everything. And so the next day, the bus, on the bus, the little girls get on and Sara’s like, “Hey, can I be friends?” And they’re like, “no.” So Sara did this to these little girls every single day for weeks. Finally, finally, the girls are like, “fine, fine, we’ll be your friend” because there was also not only Sara continuing to ask, but the peer pressure of all the other kids, because the kids really treated Sara like they understood that you shouldn’t be mean to her. Now they were horrible to each other, my son that you know, he got bullied and I’m sure they all dished it out themselves. But the kids, they didn’t really bully Sara I mean, these little girls were like I’m not gonna be your friend”, but she just wore them down. “Fine, we’ll be your friend.”
Chris Straigis – 18:01
Let’s fast forward to 2000, the year 2000. The year opens with the world bracing for a technology meltdown with Y2K. The year ends with the world learning the term “hanging chad.” So there’s a lot going on. But in your own life, your own life is is about to irrevocably change course. How did you go from average citizen to advocate?
Debra Ruh – 18:30
When they first told us that Sarah had Down Syndrome, I thought, how can I contribute? How can I contribute? And I couldn’t really figure it out for a long time. And I was in the banking industry. And I, you know, there was a project in our bank, they’d asked the managers, I was Vice President, they asked the managers if you would hire some people with disabilities, and so I did do that. And so that was some ways I could, could contribute. And when we would do United Way or eat Easter Seals or, I could talk about how those organizations supported our family when we were walking this. But I wanted to do more. So when Sara, she reached that middle school part, so she was in middle school, we had a conversation with her teachers, and the different special ed experts. And it was a meeting to talk about Sara’s future. And so when I was in this meeting with all these experts, and I’m just the mom, and they are talking about, pretty much Sara won’t be able to contribute anything to society in the future. She will not be welcome in the workforce. And it’s, you know, pretty much she’ll be dependent on all of us for the rest of her life. And I thought, what, Have you even talked to my daughter, and can we have a conversation about what she wants to do? And she’s so smart in her own way and why do you think there’s no room for her in society? And one of the people said, “Well, I guess what she could do is just bring shopping carts in from, you know, a Target or a Walmart.” And I thought, really, that’s the that’s the stretch goal you have for my daughter? So at that moment, I woke up to really the plight that many people with disabilities walk, and I thought, I don’t, I don’t think society should work that way.
Debra Ruh – 20:26
So, so I decided I was going to create my own company. I’ve never been somebody with a burning entrepreneurial desire to start a company. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I really liked working for big corporations. So my identity was really wrapped up in working for big corporate America. But I thought, okay, I’m going to start my own business and I’m going to employ people with disabilities. So I created a company in 2001 called TecAccess. I love technology. My father was a technologist with AT&T, and I just love technology. So I, I thought, okay, I’ll be a technologist and I will employ people with disabilities that are technologists. And there was this law that had just been refreshed on the books the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. And in 2001, we updated it and put a little bit more teeth in the section 508 part of the law, saying that the United States government could not build, procure, buy any technology unless it was fully accessible to all citizens, including citizens with disabilities. So we were working with websites, but also software and hardware too, to make sure it was fully accessible to people with disabilities. And the majority of the team or people with disabilities, so I had a huge advantage over my competitors because I was employing the people that they were trying to make technology accessible for. I had all these super talented employees with disabilities.
Debra Ruh – 22:00
There was a gentleman that worked for me that lived in the Virginia home, in Richmond, Virginia. So he was a quadriplegic. And he, he needed around-the-clock care. I had a woman who actually still works for me at the new company, Rosemary, that, you know, was born with cerebral palsy. And Rosemary told me once that when she lies down flat, she can only blink her eyes. That’s the control she has of her body, but she’s brilliant. And she’s a creative and imaginative. She’s just a really amazing woman. And so, I learned so much by these individuals. I also learned that, I remember one gentleman that worked for me, he had very, very severe diabetes, and he sustained multiple traumatic brain injuries. And he said to me one time, you know, Debra, I know I’m not going to live this longer, as long as my peers just because of these disabilities, but I want to make a difference while I’m here. And so I started realizing this is not just about you making a difference, Deborah, this is about you making sure that he and others have the limelight so they can, their voices can be heard. But the corporation’s weren’t, and I still often feel are not still seriously taking true disability inclusion, accessibility to heart. It’s still a compliance issue for them to check off.
Debra Ruh – 23:24
My company TecAccess failed because of a bank we were with in Virginia, it was one of the first small business banks to fail because of the greed of the big banks. That’s when I took the my company and I merged it in with another company that also was in the field, and all of my employees got hired and got pay increases. And so I lost a lot of money, some investors lost a lot of money, but I saved my employees with disabilities, which was very important to me at the time. So, but so I stayed with that company for about 18 months, and it wasn’t really my cup of tea. And so I went and created a Ruh Global Impact, because I just didn’t think anybody was telling the stories about, you know, yes, we need to be accessible, and yes, we need to include people with disabilities. But why? What are the stories and and why is it important in to these these corporations to do this and these organizations? It’s not just for corporations. I mean, why should anyone care about these topics accessibility and inclusion? I just felt that the stories needed to be told. And I didn’t see anyone doing that.
Chris Straigis – 24:39
What does accessibility mean to you?
Debra Ruh – 24:43
Good question. Accessibility means that technology works for all of us. And, and I think also accessibility is bigger than technology. It’s certainly ICT – internet communications and technology because it’s got to to be all the devices have to work, I have to have, you know, good internet connection. So the digital inclusion is part of it. Your software, your apps, your, you know, I mean, as you know, technology and communications has just changed and changed and changed and change so much, but, but at the same time, also, the built environment has to be accessible. Because if I can’t go into a restaurant, because I’m with a friend that’s in a wheelchair, you know, I don’t, I’m not going to go to that restaurant. So everything has to be accessible. And the good news about accessibility is when you make things accessible, it makes it accessible for everybody else.
Debra Ruh – 25:41
So when we started captioning videos and transcribing audio, the good news is that 80 to 85% of people watch videos with the sound turned off. So if you’re captioning it, you’re gonna, whether you do open caption or closed caption, you allow me to turn it on and off. Maybe you don’t want to see the text, you’re going to make that experience more beneficial to everybody else. And another thing that I learned about accessibility is, and I talk about this all the time, as we live our lives, my husband’s a perfect example of that we change, we change. And according to AARP, 46% of us over the age of 65 have disabilities. We don’t see as well, we don’t hear as well, we don’t move as well. We don’t concentrate as well. And also, a lot of times older Americans feel that they just, something must be wrong with them, they just must be so stupid. They can’t figure out how to use this technology. When, I don’t believe that’s true. I believe it is that the designers are not taking the time for a lot of different reasons. Not all of them, but they’re not taking the time to really make sure that technology is truly usable for all of us. And that means accessibility, but that also means somebody that is aged into a disability, also can use your technology.
Chris Straigis – 26:59
So today, with Ruh Global Impact, you work with Fortune 100 companies to help shape their efforts around the process and concepts of accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. When I think of the agility of companies like that, I get this vision of a 1000-foot cargo ship, trying to make a U-turn on a busy street in my neighborhood. And so, tell me something that you’ve learned working with those kind of companies. Tell me something that those companies don’t understand when it comes to the work you do.
Debra Ruh – 27:38
When they still don’t understand, and I do, I have been blessed to I have some of the biggest customers that are some of the biggest corporations in the world we’ve evolved into over the last few years. We are talking about it from a much broader lens than just people, than just people with disabilities. We’re also talking about the intersectionality of diversity and how this, and once again, this is not just about people with disabilities, this is about people that are aging into disabilities. This is about, you know, the African Americans that might have a disability. So it’s, it’s all about inclusion. I use often the word inclusion, diversity and disability inclusion. One thing I think that helped me get into these big corporations is that I come from corporations, and I know how it works. I know how even though you’re a gigantic brand, trillion dollar brand, or a billion dollar or hundreds of millions, the reality is you still have a budget, you still have only a limited amount of resources and you still have other goals that you have to do. So one thing that I still think is happening is that I think most of these gigantic corporations still are not taking this seriously. Now, I think it’s there’s a shift happening, but I still think that they’re looking at it more as a compliance. It’s something they have to do instead of looking at it from the front perspective of ‘first of all, society has expectations of you. Second of all, when you make things accessible and inclusive, it benefits all of your customers. And it really benefits you.’
Debra Ruh – 29:11
And so I think, I’ve written about this, I’ve written three books, but my last book was inclusion branding, and I talked about this, and I’ve talked about it from more and more societies expecting that you are going to include everybody in the workforce. You know, we’re finding that when we hire a diverse workforce, they’re actually more creative and innovative. So and they’re actually more productive. And well just look at that, we send everybody home teleworking, and they’re more productive. Wow, just think how much more productive they would be if the systems were accessible to them. I think technology needs to work for humans and we need to tie technology to humans and we need to make sure corporations and organizations of all sizes, all sizes, understand that why would you build anything that didn’t include all of us. And every time we make things, something accessible, it makes it more usable for us to use it. And the more we use it, the more we’re going to love your products, and the more we’re going to support you. So I think we still are there, which is why it’s so important in that you’re in the conversation, Chris, because you we need everybody in these conversations, because we’re not going to change society. If we don’t really take the time to reimagine what it could look like.
Chris Straigis – 30:30
Deborah, it’s been an absolute treat to talk with you today. The work you do is so important and the community you support is so engaged and has come so far, but I know there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I would encourage everyone to get involved at either their business or in their community, or even at a political level to help keep the ball moving forward. But before I let you go, you mentioned earlier that someone painted a future for your daughter, Sara, that she would at best be pushing carts at a grocery store. Can you tell me what she’s doing today?
Debra Ruh – 31:09
They told me that Sara would never be able to work in marketable positions. And you know, and and they were wrong. The experts were wrong. And she actually did work for 15 years for Nordstroms. And she worked before that, three years for Wendys, so she was in markable employment But then then Sara got sick, and she got very sick and she, she wound up having this rare disorder. It’s a blood clot disorder, which I didn’t realize it but it runs in my husband’s family. So she got very, very sick. So right now she’s much much, much better. She doesn’t speak on stage with me anymore like she used to. I’m hoping she’ll start doing that again because she’s a wonderful speaker. She’s talked on stage to audiences as large as 5000 people. She is, she’s a beautiful little soul. But right now she’s not working, but she moved out on her own (air quotes), because she’s in a supported apartment, not living with their parents, which she loves. And she lives with another woman that also has disabilities, intellectual disabilities. And then she has a staff that supports them. So they come in and they help them with meals, they help them with grocery shopping, but my daughter is thrilled to be on her own. So she’s very happy. And what more do you want for your children than for them to be happy? So she’s thriving right now. She’s really thriving and it is, it warms my heart.
Chris Straigis – 32:55
Debra’s work has taken her around the world to help create programs, develop strategies, and implement processes that fully include persons with disabilities. It’s a critical cause that I’d encourage everyone to learn more about. To learn more about Debra and her corporate and advocacy work, please visit rueglobal.com. And listen to her podcast, Human Potential At Work, wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook @debraruh. You should also check out the Americans with Disabilities website, ada.gov. There you can find news, technical assistance materials, laws and regulations, and much more. You can find transcripts and links from today’s show at scrappypod.com and you can listen back to all the great stories from Season One at the website or wherever you get your podcasts. And of course, thanks for listening to Scrappy.