Celebrating our differences – Debra Ruh [Interview]
Debra Ruh founded Ruh Global Impact in 2013. Her catalyst for starting RGC was her daughter, Sarah, born with Down syndrome. Debra has worked as a global inclusion strategist since 2001 before she became an entrepreneur.
About Debra Ruh
Debra Ruh founded Ruh Global Impact in 2013. Her catalyst for starting RGC was her daughter, Sarah, born with Down syndrome. Debra has worked as a global inclusion strategist since 2001. Before she became an entrepreneur she was an executive in the banking industry for many years. Debra is a global leader and has worked with countries, UN agencies, national and multinational firms all over the world helping then create programs, strategies, and processes that fully include persons with disabilities.
We have the pleasure of welcoming Debra Ruh to our interview series. I am Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team, before we begin just a quick introduction of peopleHum – peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work with AI and automation technologies. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
Welcome, Debra. We’re thrilled to have you.
Thank you, thank you so much for having me, I am very honored to be part of the program. today
Thank you so much. So I want to begin with the first question we had for you Debra, which is
Tell us something about your work at the Ruh Global Impact and TechAccess.
Well, we’re all about the impact, we want to make the world a better place for all people for all inhabitants of our planet.
So the work that we do is all about social good and social impact when we just think that especially in the time in the world when it is so confusing and so upside down and people are panicked and, afraid of what’s gonna happen with the Covid-19.
Right now. I just think it’s so important that we support each other and we help each other and we look at what works for all of us. We don’t just stick to nationalism. I think it’s very important that we see the world as filled with human beings that we want to support and help, and so TechAccess supports that.
I’ll step back even a little bit more. I was in the banking industry and I had a good career in the banking industry, but I had started to feel like I wasn’t doing enough, and I wanted to have a bigger impact to help more people.
So, when my daughter was in middle school or we call it middle school or junior high school here in the States, she really wasn’t reading. She wasn’t doing math and I thought, I never thought she would catch up with all the students, but I thought she would be further along than she was at the time.
And so I talked to experts about her future in the workforce and pretty much they were like, Well, she can’t join the workforce. She has nothing to add to the workforce. She could bring shopping carts in from a big store, like a Walmart or a Target or something like that.
And I just thought it was unfortunate that they didn’t see the value that my daughter could bring to the workforce. And it started making me think, who else are they underestimating? And so I decided to create TechAccess in 2001 and our focus, the majority of our employees at the time over 80% were people technologists with disabilities from all over the world. Because we always telework which you mentioned – the future of work.
Well, we’re all experiencing, most of, a lot of us around the world right now are experiencing telework, telecommunications, and, or telecommuting, which is an old term, but meaning the same thing. And so the company thrived and built it to a multimillion-dollar business. It was great. We helped corporations make sure that their websites, their intranets, their software, their apps were fully accessible to people with disabilities.
But when the financial crisis happened in 2009 and 10, I, like a lot of small businesses in the United States as well as all over the world, got in trouble because the bank we were with failed, because of the other banks being greedy. And, you know, they were the first line of banks that fell that had nothing to do with what had happened.
And when they failed, they called my notes. So then I started failing. And so we merged the company with another company to protect the employees because once again, my employees were people with disabilities, and at the time, seven million Americans had been laid off, and my employees really just did not have a chance in that marketplace because still, we don’t see the value of employing people with disabilities.
So I went, I merged with the other company. All of my employees got jobs, which was great. And then in March 2013 I created Ruh Global Impact, really Ruh global Communications at the time. But we changed the name of Ruh Global Impact, and now about 85 to maybe 90% of my team are people with disabilities.
And we work, as you said, with major multinational corporations and UN agencies to really help make sure that the world understands that we all or better, we are all included. I mean, instead of deciding certain people don’t add value because, they’re from a developed country, their skin is too dark, too light, too whatever. "We really are trying to break down the barriers of what it means to truly be human"
“We really are trying to break down the barriers of what it means to truly be human”
And excuse me for that long, long answer.
No, that is wonderful. Actually, it’s a very impactful thing that you’re doing because, you know, inclusivity is such a taboo sometimes because, you know, people don’t really understand what do you mean by inclusivity, and we just keep talking about the world. But there’s really no meaning to it. And I thank you for that.
I truly think that you know, you are an inspiration to a lot of people and the cause of people with disabilities.
So what I want to understand is that, of course, you know this cause is very personal to you. Can you share some experiences and how your journey has been so far?
When my daughter was born with down syndrome, the doctors did not diagnose her with down syndrome right away. Typically, when a person is born with down syndrome, just looking from the lens you know, which was my world view at the time. Most babies with down syndrome are diagnosed before they’re born or at birth.
And so when my daughter was born, she wasn’t diagnosed with down syndrome, but she did not perform well on. I think it’s called the Apgar Scale where they determine how healthy the baby is. And she had low muscle tone and they had said there were some things that she did not rate as well. You don’t want them to rate your baby right when she’s born. But that’s you know what we do. And so four months later, a doctor suspected that she might have Down syndrome.
And so they did the testing, and I remember them coming to my husband and me, which was four months old and telling us that she had Down Syndrome and just the way they presented the information was quite troubling because it was like, well, you have a broken baby. They didn’t really say that, but in a way they did, right?
And so, it just was all doom and gloom, and by that time I had the joy of not only carrying my daughter for nine months but then my daughter four months old. So I knew who she was, and I just tried not to believe that she would have such a dire life that they were predicting.
And, you know, we walked along the journey and I remember thinking that I didn’t know people with disabilities, but actually I was surrounded by people with disabilities, as we all are, because we’re all human beings and we all have abilities and disabilities, and some of them are more apparent than others. But it doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to society if society will allow us to contribute.
And often in many countries, including my own country, the United States, people with disabilities, are underestimated. People are underestimated all the time. Women are underestimated. Women are still losing hundreds of millions of dollars every single year due to, the difference and the pay disparity that we’re saying.
So people that have darker color skin than I do, are often underestimated. "It’s just ridiculous how we decide who is and is not valuable. And I disagree with all of that."
“It’s just ridiculous how we decide who is and is not valuable. And I disagree with all of that.”
So and then, of course, as we live our lives, more of us will become disabled. So my husband of 38 years has acquired early-onset dementia and he which is really to me a scary thing.
And we’ve been walking the journey a couple of years now. But my husband got a traumatic brain injury when he was a child. He was hit by a car when he was 11 years old. It was a very, very serious accident. And so his brain is aging differently than somebody that didn’t have such a major accident like that. And it’s, it’s been very hard.
And also this is something that we’re seeing a lot of people walk over a certain age, and so I also, as I’ve learned more and more about the work, have understood that I myself have disabilities.
I know I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression due to a lot of things, it doesn’t help with this COVID virus. I mean, the Coronavirus right now, scaring everybody to death, but it runs in my family. And also I was diagnosed later in life with ADHD more of a hidden disability. But at the same time, that impacts anxiety and depression, too.
So I think it just means that I’m a normal human being or, you know, an average human being or a typical human being, whatever word you want to use. But we keep, we keep deciding certain people aren’t as good as other people, and I just think that’s wrong. And "I think that society disables people"
“I think that society disables people”
…and we need to work harder in making sure everybody is accepted included and given all the benefits of education, everything else they could do so that they can thrive.
Absolutely, and I think a lot of people, even though they’re aware of this and literate, they understand all this, they just choose to stay blind. So that’s really disheartening because you just really don’t want to see that, you know, that they’re all human beings like you said, so treating them equally is the number one thing that we should see. And thank you so much for that beautiful answer.
The next part of it is I want to ask you what do you believe are still the gaps that organizations have to, you know, think about to make disability inclusion, real and work for everyone.
Well, I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done all over the world. And here in the United States, even though my work is global, I do live in the United States, as I’ve said, and so we sue each other in the United States. We create laws, and then we sue each other, and we sue each other for a lot of money. And so we’re seeing a lot of litigation, a lot of lawsuits in the United States because websites are inaccessible and apps are inaccessible and things like that.
And now that more people have been sent home to work so that we all can stay safe, we’re seeing a lot of accessibility issues that we’ve been talking about for years and years. And accessibility, when done right, it improves access for all people. So it’s really good. And there were a lot of people that are having access issues.
So we actually expect during this Coronavirus that we’re going to see lawsuits pick up after a while because people are realizing they don’t truly have access as they need. And our rural areas still don’t have good access to even the Internet. And I’ve written about that before and these are problems that we, of course, are seeing in developing countries. But it’s happening in developed countries too.
So I think a mistake sometimes we make as people is that we assume developed countries have more knowledge than the developing countries
“we assume developed countries have more knowledge than the developing countries”
…and I think that’s absolutely not true. I see the developing countries often are more innovative and they’re more creative and there’s more diversity in the discussions when developing countries get involved.
I think at a time of great stress and fear and everything, this is an opportunity for us to really look at how are we including people? What is diversity? How do we make sure things are accessible to people with disabilities but to all people?
And so you, once again, you just use the term future of work. Well, it is certainly the future of work. It’s the NOW of work, right? Is that if you don’t have a diverse workforce, if you’re not including women with different backgrounds, intersectionality, women with disabilities, women from India, women from Central America, women from Africa, women, you know in all those places. If you’re not including women, that are part of the LGBT community, women that have different religious experiences.
So this is truly about what does it mean to be truly human? What does it and how do the employers protect us and encourage us to be our best selves because we know that diversity really really plays well into innovation and creativity, which equals productivity. I think we still have a lot of work to do. But that’s why the work you’re doing is so important because it’s gonna take all of us doing this.
Yes, that’s correct. And again, you know it’s all about inclusivity, global inclusivity and, you know, just not talk about what color you are, but actually look at the value of work that you’re doing right? That’s what’s more important.
And also age, you know, I’m joining you today at 61 years old and I celebrated turning 60 by coloring my hair purple. You know it’s gray because I’m 60. And really a woman can have whatever color hair they want. But why not celebrate where we each are? And honor the beauty of the human experience.
Absolutely everyone has freedom. Then why not women? Why? Why is there bias? Absolutely.
I agree. I agree.
I love your hair, by the way.
Thank you. You know, it’s fun. I was blonde for a while? Well I had dark, dark hair as a young woman and then it got more blonde, and I found that I was having to dye it every four weeks.
And I thought, I think you might be doing a disservice to younger women, and I have a special place in my heart for women and women supporting women. But I thought I’m gonna let it go gray. But I was afraid this was gonna look terrible. And then I started looking at, you know, maybe I could add blonde with gray, and I saw a woman online that had purple with gray, and I thought, Oh, now that’s pretty. Why can’t I dye it? But I’m 60 years old. Darn it. I’m gonna have purple hair.
So I think it’s about owning our power, right? And then allowing other people to be empowered. And this man, the silly man, who I just ran into that I know from my neighborhood. He said, “I hate your hair”. And I said, Well, you know what? I love my hair. And you should never tell a woman that you hate their hair. It’s just, very silly for you to do that as a man. “Well, I was thinking”, and it’s like I don’t care if you hate my hair. I like it and that’s all I need, right? So I think, and yes, I’m focusing on women and people with disabilities.
But we keep disenfranchising certain parts of our population and we’re bad about it as women. And then you start the Intersectionality. Women that are gay, women that are disabled, and it goes a little worse, a little worse, a little worse. But why do we keep deciding people are broken or people don’t matter?
“But why do we keep deciding people are broken or people don’t matter?”
I think we’ve got to stop doing that, and your country is one of the biggest countries in the world, you know, I think you are right there with China and there’s so much beauty coming out of India. I listen to spiritual work all the time to keep me sort of balanced, especially during these crazy times.
Well, whom I’m listening to. I’m listening to the Indian gurus because they comfort me and they give me hope. “we all can learn so much from each other if we really value who the person is and corporations need to embrace that and we need to celebrate our differences.”
And so I think…
“We all can learn so much from each other if we really value who the person is and corporations need to embrace that and we need to celebrate our differences.”
Absolutely, just remove those borders and talk to each other as just mere humans.
Yes, and try to figure out who are you? and what do you like? And let’s figure out how we’re the same before always focusing on why we’re different. So I have to hate you because it’s ridiculous.
And, I think a lot of women aren’t like that, but I think there are quite a few men that aren’t like that either. And more and more, we need to support our male allies that are supporting the work that we’re doing with diversity.
Absolutely. I completely agree, just blow those smoke mirrors, right? Just break that glass.
Yeah, because you can get a beautiful experience and must protect each other, so…
Yeah, agreed. Alright, moving on to the next one that I have for you.
How does employee experience design need to change to include aspects of disability inclusion?
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