Company makes technology accessible for the disabled

2007 Virginia Small Business Success Story of the Year, Overall Winner and Central Virginia Finalist

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By Phaedra Hise

Like many disabled veterans, Jonathan Ballard struggled to find a job last year. Although he wasn’t wounded in combat, the retired 43-year-old Air Force master sergeant had a sleep disorder and degenerative arthritis in his hips, conditions that were growing increasingly worse. “Some days I’m fine,” he says. “Others I can barely make it down the hallway.”

Despite more than 25 years’ experience in maintaining aircraft and training military commanders and supervisors on how to teach, Ballard lacked one critical job requirement for civilian work: a college degree. “Employers want to see that piece of paper,” he says.

Ballard is one of many disabled workers eager to join the mainstream work force. When the Hampton resident filed for unemployment compensation in April, he learned about a training program for disabled veterans being started in May by TecAccess, a small IT company based in Goochland County.

Today Ballard works part time as special assistant to the head of the state Veterans Workforce Development Task Force. He looks forward to a corporate IT job once he finishes training. “There is great potential for what’s available for veterans in this program,” he says.

Virginia Business selected TecAccess as its 2007 Small Business Success Story of the Year because of the company’s leading role in employing the disabled. It was one of the first in the country to rely on telecommuting and adaptive technologies to tap into a largely unused labor pool. “Twenty percent of our nation’s population has some sort of disability,” says TecAccess founder and CEO Debra Ruh.

While the common image is of someone in a wheelchair, this pool of 60 million Americans includes a growing segment of baby boomers. As this huge demographic ages and heads into retirement, some boomers are beginning to suffer hearing loss and weakness in their hands. Throw in increasing numbers of wounded combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s easy to see why people with disabilities represent one of the largest and fastest-growing minority groups in the world.

In its third year of presenting the award, Virginia Business reviewed 49 nominations of small businesses submitted from around the state. It selected a finalist and two semifinalists from each of four regions. They were honored at an awards luncheon in January at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

The story of how Ruh, 49, started her company begins in 1998. That’s when the federal government mandated access for the disabled to its electronic and information technology, via Section 508 regulations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although the law doesn’t apply to private industry, there were enough government agencies to give birth to an industry niche. The new initiative came eight years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. It barred disability as a basis for discrimination, prompting companies to add ramps and lower curbs to make buildings physically accessible. Today, the focus has changed to providing a virtual ramp to technology.

At the time, Ruh was running computer systems and technology training programs for Crestar Bank in Richmond. She was also a mother to two young children, including a daughter, Sara, who has Down syndrome. Sara wanted to be a nurse. “But to be a nurse’s assistant, you have to read on a fifth-grade level, and by sixth grade Sara wasn’t reading at all,” recalls Ruh. A well-meaning social worker suggested that Sara could have a career collecting shopping carts at a grocery store. 

Ruh recoiled at the thought. “No, no, no!” she recalls thinking. “She has a great sense of humor. Obviously she can learn. When we play movie trivia games with my son, Sara wins every time.” As a successful businesswoman, Ruh knew Sara was capable of contributing to corporate America, but she also recognized that employers might not immediately grasp her potential.

That gave birth to her vision: create employment opportunities for the disabled through the use of technology. When Ruh left Crestar in 2000, she decided to jump into the new industry created by Section 508 compliance. She started TecAccess in 2001 with a $10,000 line of credit from a local bank, the family’s 401(k) and her children’s donation of $750. “I’ve paid them back double,” she’s quick to point out.

In the beginning, Ruh ran the company out of her home, offering IT services as a consultant. TecAccess was certified as an “8a,” small disadvantaged enterprise, a designation that helps businesses access the federal procurement market. Seven years later, it’s a fast-growing, award-winning company that provides speakers on adaptive technology to audiences around the globe. 

To handle its consulting and employment services, TecAccess employs 30 full-time staffers and 30 part-time associates and contractors. Many have disabilities, including brain injury, cerebral palsy and blindness. Some work from group homes and rehabilitation facilities.

Lately, the company has been in the spotlight for teaming up with the state to create the Disabled Veterans Initiative. It provides returning disabled veterans with technology training and the guarantee of a job once they successfully complete training. “This isn’t charity or a pity

party,” says retired Army Lt. Col. Dennis Stone, a former Special Forces Green Beret who runs the program for TecAccess. “These are smart people whose combat skills aren’t readily transferable to civilian life. We give them computer and financial skills to use in the job market.”

Training and employment services represent a new arena for TecAccess. At first, the company’s goal was simply to help government agencies make their technology “accessible.” How can a blind person use a Web site? How can a deaf person be teleconferenced into a meeting? Ruh had a disarmingly simple solution. “Who better to troubleshoot those situations than someone with a disability?”

That’s why she hired disabled workers like Rosemary Musachio. Cerebral palsy has robbed Musachio of the ability to speak or use her hands. Yet, a head pointer enables her to successfully navigate a computer keyboard. She’s been working as an accessibility analyst for TecAccess for 5½ years. “This job has made a tremendous impact on my life,” Musachio types on her keyboard. “I was released from the chains of Social Security, and it has boosted my self-esteem.”

Ruh’s first clients were government agencies, including the U.S. departments of Education and Defense and state agencies in Virginia. Her teams access an agency’s internal software programs, hardware, Web sites and teleconferencing technology and identify which parts aren’t available to them. Then they suggest solutions. Clients say Ruh delivers simple solutions with confidence, demystifying a world that’s frequently hidden to able-bodied workers.

As more agencies became familiar with TecAccess and its unusual work force, they began asking Ruh for help in finding and managing disabled workers for their own staffs. She recognized the growing demand as a new opportunity. Last year Ruh began accepting contracts to train, place and manage employees in technology jobs. Employment services still represent a fraction of the company’s revenues, but Ruh expects it to become the bulk of the company’s work in coming years, particularly in training and placing disabled veterans returning from the war in Iraq.

“She sees people with disabilities as a competitive advantage,” explains John Kemp, a partner at Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville law firm in Washington. Kemp himself is disabled, born without arms and legs below the elbow and knee. “If you’re too narrow on your applicant pool, you are probably limiting the number of highly qualified people based on unnecessary physical job criteria,” says Kemp. “Widening the pool allows you to find the cream of the crop and that can include disabled people.”

In a nutshell, that’s Ruh’s sales pitch to the business world. “We look at it from a return-on-investment approach, why this is good for the bottom line,” she says. “We want hiring to be about that, not about legality or entitlement.”

The private sector is responding. Although government clients (whose contracts tend to be larger) still provide the bulk of revenues, the company’s client list shifted over the past year to about 60 percent corporate and 40 percent government contracts. Corporations that have hired TecAccess include Canon USA, Circuit City, Wachovia and AOL. 

From 2006 to 2007, the company’s sales shot up by 134 percent, from $1.7 million to nearly $4 million. Ruh owns 70 percent of the company, with the remaining 30 percent owned by several key employees.

Ruh’s daughter, Sara, now 20, works as a hostess at the café at Nordstrom’s in Henrico County. She has a boyfriend and speaks regularly at conferences on disability issues, cracking jokes and riffing on movie trivia. Although she doesn’t officially work at TecAccess, Sara carries a company business card. Her title? “Inspiration.”

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