Entrepreneur Creates Workplace for the Disabled

Debra Ruh's daughter Sara always wanted to be a nurse, but because she read on a kindergarten level when she was in the sixth grade, her parents knew that Sara's dreams may be out of reach.

They looked into the possibility of Sara becoming a nurse's aide, but to take those tests she needed to read at the 5th to 8th grade level.

Someone suggested that Sara, who has Down Syndrome, eventually might find employment by collecting carts at a grocery store. Another suggested that Ruh, who is a self-proclaimed terrible cook, open a bakery to hire her daughter because "they knew of a bakery that employed people with disabilities."

TecAccess President Debra Ruh and her daughter Sara, the inspiration for her company. (Photo courtesy of TecAccess)

These suggestions gave Ruh pause. "Those ideas weren't necessarily bad ideas, but they made me think 'You haven't taken the time to get to know who my daughter is.'" Ruh said she worried about the limited opportunities that might be available to Sara.

Today, at age 21, Sara reads at the third-grade level and has found a new calling.

Ruh, 49, decided that there should be more companies offering opportunities to the disabled. She ditched her lucrative career as a bank executive specializing in information technology and in 2001 founded TecAccess, a firm offering IT consulting and training to corporations as well as government and educational institutions.

Technology levels some of the playing field. "What I needed to do is to create a business that hires people with disabilities and sees how creative and innovative they are...You already have to think outside the box if you have a disability because the world is made for the average person," said Ruh. "My senior vice president of government affairs is 3'11"...She has an amazing background and has been a presidential appointee but she's had to be creative and innovative."

From left, Jesse Evans, who has a disability and is a minority owner of TecAccess overseeing collections and operations support, Raymond Kenney, a disabled veteran who serves as student advisor for a job training program and founder and Chairwoman Debra Ruh. (Photo courtesy of TecAccess)

In 2001, TecAccess had two employees. Today, the company has about 60 full-time and contracted employees, most of whom have developmental or physical disabilities ranging from bipolar disorder, blindness, brain injury or cerebral palsy to quadriplegia.

The Rockville, Va., business generally works with large clients who have more positions to fill, but has experience working with firms of all sizes. For example, Canon hired TecAccess to test whether its Web site was fully accessible to blind customers who might want to shop or get information online.

"Best Buy came to us and said we want to make sure that if someone wants to purchase anything from us online, they can," added Ruh. "Regardless of whether they can't see, can't use hands or have another disability."

TecAccess recently won a contract from Virginia's Information Technologies Agency to work with all state agencies to ensure that their technologies are accessible to the disabled.

The company also has a robust program for disabled veterans. Military personnel "are some amazing people," Ruh said. "They're very driven, know how to follow orders and are good at getting the job done, but some are now blind or have lost limbs," hard realities that cause them to rethink their approach to the workplace, Ruh said.

The company helps clients hire veterans through the TecAccess Disabled Veterans, or DVET program. Ruh said that helping a vet find a job is often as easy as reworking a resume to filter out a lot of "military-speak" that may not be familiar to human resource staffs.

Like many entrepreneurs, a lot of people along the way told Ruh it couldn't be done. "I was surprised at the obstacles thrown my way, but I'm stubborn, which is an entrepreneur's trait," she mused. "One man told me I would never be successful in Virginia unless I had a white, male CEO, but that's not true. Virginia is very supportive of diversity."

She added: "An investor told me that I would do better if I didn't hire people with disabilities, but obviously he didn't get what we're all about."

Ruh said she's had ups and downs as an entrepreneur. "In the first year we added five employees, but like all small firms we have spikes that go up and down." She said that in 2006 the company lost money because it grew too fast.

Now, TecAccess is profitable and she's very proud that she didn't have to lay off any employees. In fact, she has a 90 percent retention rate of her workers, partly because many of the employees are so grateful to have a job and for the environment she's created. Ruh saves money because most of her employees telework, allowing her to keep a very small office in Rockville, Va., which is located between Richmond and Charlottesville.

Ruh noted that a lot of businesses fear hiring the disabled. "They think: Will it cause my insurance to go up? Will I have to completely redo my restrooms? Will these employee not work out and then sue me? Will it be too expensive for me to accommodate them?" she said, ticking off all of the common concerns. "But there have been massive amounts of studies done proving that all of those things are not true. And most accommodations at a workplace for a disabled employee cost less than $500."

Ruh laughs when asked if her daughter works at the company. "Well actually, although I was inspired to start the company because of her, she initially didn't want to work for her mom."

Sara worked at Nordstrom's, a company that Ruh lauded for its treatment of its employees. However, over the last two years, Sara has begun traveling around with her mom as an employee of TecAccess and an advocate of her disabled peers.

For small businesses interested in hiring people with disabilities, Ruh suggests the following steps:

*Contact your state or Department of Rehabilitative Services and give them your job descriptions. They are staffed with job coaches and counselors to help people find jobs. Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., all have information online. Also try your local agencies, like this one in Fairfax County.

*Contact the Department of Labor's Office of Disability and Employment Policy. It offers information on what small businesses need to know about hiring employees with disabilities.

*Contact state or local agencies that help employ veterans such as Maryland One-Stop Career Centers located throughout the state or Vets Group.

By Sharon McLoone |  June 17, 2008; 3:09 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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A wonderful mission with an inspiring story.

Posted by: Tracy | June 19, 2008 1:08 PM

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