By Diana Ransom
WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH last year signed into law an expanded Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that made it easier to qualify as disabled, employers worried what the impact would be on their businesses. Right now, they have a temporary reprieve as the Obama administration reviews the act, but in the next six months that could change if the law is broadened again.
The changing landscape has benefitted Debra Ruh. The owner of TecAccess, a Rockville, Va., technology accessibility consulting firm, Ruh, 50, works with tech clients such as Dell and AOL to comply with the law and ensure that their web sites and products are accessible to people with disabilities. Business is picking up as the economy recovers: TecAccess’s revenue this year will reach $4 million, double the 2008 number, says Ruh. She expects profits to drop about 5% from last year, to $200,000.
SmartMoney asked Ruh about the ups and downs with her eight-year-old firm. Here are her condensed answers.
Name: Debra Ruh
Business: TecAccess, a technology accessibility consultancy.
Location: Rockville, Virginia
Year founded: 2001
Number of employees: 25
You were a vice president at a prominent mortgage lender. Why the switch to a technology consultancy?
My daughter Sarah was diagnosed with Down syndrome when she was 4 months old. To be honest, we thought she’d grow out of it. But after several years, we realized that thinking wasn’t realistic. My husband and I started weighing employment options for Sarah. But the
existing jobs for someone with her condition were fairly menial, while the more rigorous positions were only available to those with intellectual disabilities or the seeing impaired. At the time, we thought we should create a company that understands the value of hiring people with disabilities. I’m proud to say that Sarah who is now 22 years old has two jobs. In addition to serving as TecAccess’s chief inspiration officer, in which she speaks at events, answers the
phone and performs some light administration, she also works at Nordstrom.
How do you work with companies to revamp their products and services?
Even something as simple as fixing the way a web site is constructed can make a huge difference in improving accessibility among the disabled. Many web sites contain flashy graphics and images. However, for someone who is, say, sight impaired, pictures don’t translate. You have to tag all of those images in a certain way so that a screen reader will pick up what the image is. A side benefit of all of this tagging is the more accessible you make your web site, the easier it is for search engines and mobile devices to read it.
Does hiring disabled workers present its own set of challenges?
Initially, it did because we didn’t hire based on qualifications as much as we hired based on the fact that someone was disabled. Regrettably, this led to a few hiring failures. However, now we hire based on qualifications first and disability second.
How did the downturn affect business?
We didn’t feel any changes for the first couple of months last year. But then the projects started to just trickle in, and, all of a sudden, our customers went from paying us within 35 days to paying in 60 to 90 days. I had to reduce salaries across the board. And while we didn’t lay anyone off, we didn’t fill positions when people left. Although things are now looking up, the lack of cash flow stopped us from being able to create new products and services.
Helping companies cater to millions of disabled consumers is an effective sales pitch. During the downturn, did you have to change it?
Regardless of the positive return on investment we could provide, we found that, starting in January, potential clients were more interested in staying out of legal trouble. In recent years, companies including Target, Bank of America and Sony have been sued thanks to alleged violations against the Americans with Disabilities Act. As it turns out, when the economy goes down, lawsuits rise. (Editor’s note: The ADA is currently under review by the Obama administration and may or may not become more inclusive.)
Considering that so many companies are struggling to make ends meet these days, what do you say to businesses that say they can’t afford to add handicap-accessible products, features or services in spite of government mandates?
In this economy, we all need to expand our client base. While introducing new products and features will cost you, you’ll also be widening your reach by making them more accessible. Plus, as members of the baby boomer generation age, many of them will acquire disabilities. Not taking the steps to include these individuals can quickly erode future profits.
What is your best advice for entrepreneurs getting started today?
Today, especially, it is very important to follow the rules. Now you should have enough cash to cover eight months of expenses in the bank. If you grow too quickly, slow down, or you’ll exhaust your resources. Make sure your financials are always in order. Understand your balance sheet. And, of course, spend less than what you’re making. While these tips seem obvious, I didn’t follow them and perhaps had a more painful start-up process because of it.