For many, the ability to telework — working remotely, usually from home, via computer — is viewed as a pleasant convenience, a benefit offered by progressive employers to enhance the work environment. But for the employees of TecAccess, it is a necessity of professional life.
“Commuting to work is annoying for many of us,” said TecAccess founder Debra Ruh. “But for most of my employees, it’s impossible.”
TecAccess, an electronics and information technology (E&IT) company, employs more than 30 associates, nearly all of whom have disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to cognitive disabilities. Many TecAccess employees, including market analyst Rosemary Musachio, require access to assistive technologies or personal care assistance that makes it difficult to work outside the home. Musachio, who has cerebral palsy, cannot speak or use her hands, but uses a word board and headpointer to communicate, both in her work for TecAccess and as a regular columnist for Sun Newspapers.
According to a 1997 U.S. Census Bureau report, the employment rate for adults aged 25 to 64 with a severe disability is just above 30 percent (and has hovered at this level for the past 12 years), with median earnings of $13,272, compared with an 84 percent employment rate for adults without disabilities, who also draw nearly $23,000 in median earnings. But constantly improving assistive technologies and a global telecommunications infrastructure have made access to higher paying, flexibly scheduled jobs more achievable.
And broadband, said Ruh, has made it practical.
About 70 percent of TecAccess associates use broadband to telecommute, collaborating with one another and with their clients. The remaining 30 percent, including Ruh herself, are dialing up and waiting not-so-patiently for broadband to become available in their areas.
“Broadband is so important to where we’re going. Some people think broadband is trendy, that it’s a nice convenience, but not really necessary,” Ruh said. “But not for TecAccess associates and for the millions of other people with disabilities.
“Broadband isn’t a luxury. Broadband is the difference between quality of life or not. It’s about being able to work and being able to interact in ways that haven’t always been possible for people with disabilities. One of our associates said to me, ‘You gave me my life back. You gave me my respect back.’ “
TecAccess specializes in information technology (IT) accessibility as well as compliance solutions for Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and 1998, providing accessibility testing and assessment, training, engineering, policy review and consulting. Section 508 requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. The quickly growing company’s clients include some well-known corporations, including Avaya, Wachovia, Verizon, Canon and Circuit City, not to mention U.S. government bodies, including the Navy, the Social Security Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
Ruh, who started TecAccess in the late 1990s, was inspired by her daughter, Sara, who has Down Syndrome. Ruh, a former telecommunications and IT professional, realized that the future employment options for Sara were limited, so she decided to create an IT company that would hire mainly people with disabilities.
“People said, ‘Oh, open up a bakery, open up a T-shirt shop,” said Ruh. “But what do I know about cakes or clothing?”
Instead, Ruh created a company with a specialized mission and a compelling logic: evaluation and development of disability-accessible technologies by people with disabilities.
Originally, the company’s focus was on building accessible Web sites for companies, work that is clearly a perfect fit for the telecommuting model. But as the company expanded, they found an increasing number of their clients were looking for assistance in Section 508 compliance and the accessibility of technologies beyond the Internet. From there, growth has been rapid and exciting.
For example, one corporation that was working with TecAccess on various accessibility projects asked the company for its recommendation on the “dream copier.” If money were not a consideration, what would a totally accessible copier look like? Sean Stapleford, a TecAccess associate who is paralyzed from the neck down, came up with 15 pages of ideas, from symmetrical voice automation (the copier both responds to voice commands and provides voice prompts to assist users with tasks) to a copier that senses when it needs to be repaired and automatically contacts the technician, or in some cases, repairs itself.
“The client brought Sean’s ideas to their engineers in Japan, who were really excited by what he suggested,” Ruh said. “They are actually building some of his ideas into their next design.”
Ruh is counting on broadband to continue to open doors for people with disabilities. True high-speed connectivity not only supports a “virtual office,” by allowing video conferencing and transmission of large files and applications between locations, but provides people with disabilities — typically a more isolated and under-served population — with more opportunities to interact socially, learn marketable skills and achieve increasing fiscal and social independence.
Ruh is excited about the possibilities for herself and her employees with fiber to the home. For now, she’d settle for access to a DSL line (she estimates that she’s contacted her local carrier no fewer than 30 times in the last year or so to see if broadband is available in her area yet!), but for the long term, she knows her associates, and millions of other individuals with disabilities, will need as much bandwidth as they can get.
“The technologies that assist people with disabilities are constantly improving, offering more options, more independence and more accessibility,” said Ruh. “If telecommunications can’t keep up with our technology, we might as well just slow down our technology. And that’s not going to happen. That can’t happen. So let’s make sure the telecommunications can keep up with us.”
As for TecAccess, Ruh and her associates continue to draw big corporate clients, with the dual goals of both improving technology accessibility as well as growing the employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Ruh has set her sights on developing a curriculum for training people with disabilities for information technology professions.
“It’s time for more companies like this, don’t you think?” said Ruh. “And without broadband, without the Internet, we could not have this company. We would not exist.”