Debra Ruh is a mother, disability advocate, founder of a Global Communications firm, and author of three books. She also chairs a United Nations Task Force that supports the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Diagnosed with ADHD at age 56, she shared her story with the hope it will help others.
How did you get into your career and find your passion for disability inclusion?
I started in the banking industry. My son, who’s a smart alack, he used to make fun of me. “Oh, you’re a banker mom. I’ll be a banker for Halloween.” I said, “shut up Kevin.” So it wasn’t very sexy or exciting, but I was in technology and technology fascinated me.
When I first entered the workforce in the late 70s, women were still considered sort of odd in the workforce. I had other mothers tell me that someday I would care enough about my children to be a stay at home mom. I just thought that is so wrong to say that, to try to make me feel guilty as a mother for working, I want to have an impact.
So I was in the technology part of the banking industry when I became pregnant with my daughter. I was 28 years old, and she was born with Down Syndrome.
When my daughter hit middle school, I started hearing everything she couldn’t do. She couldn’t join the workforce, she can’t do this, she can’t do that. I thought, I don’t understand why people with disabilities can’t be included in the workforce. So I thought I’ll just start my own company. How hard can that be? Okay, super, super, super hard.
That’s when I created TecAccess, which the majority of my employees were people with disabilities. I got so many accolades for my work there. I got trophies and awards and media attention. I remember often thinking, why is it such a big deal that, as an entrepreneur, I want to hire these talented technologists with disabilities? I look forward to a time when it’s not really that unusual. In some ways, it’s become more normal, but at the time, I was getting so much attention because nobody was doing anything.
Today you’re working with United Nations to take the mission even farther. Can you tell us a little bit about your work there?
Wanting impact and wanting to make a difference. That’s one reason why I went in the direction of supporting the United Nations and the efforts they’re making all over the world to include all of us, to address all of these different issues, including what’s still happening with women, with gender pay gaps and the inequity that we have with gender? There’s a lot to do in the world, isn’t there?
One thing that I started seeing in the United States was we were very focused on solving the problems here in our country, and we got plenty. But I think it’s a mistake not to look at it from a global perspective. How can we all work together to solve these problems and empower humanity? I’ve worked with a lot of the [UN] agencies, supporting them, both volunteer and in business relationships. I really believe the way to really have impact is to join other people.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell myself that it’s okay to really be authentic and to own who you are. Along the way, I always did that, but at great expense to myself.
Yes, you’re different, and maybe even a little weird and quirky, and it’s okay. I tried so hard to conform. Please don’t try to conform. It’s exhausting.
Are there messages you received throughout your life that you are working to let go of?
Always, always, always. I remember being in elementary school, and the teachers would get so annoyed with my curiosity, all of my questions I would pepper at them. My constant chatter, I was constantly in trouble.
My love for learning actually got very, very dampened while I was in school. I enjoyed the social part of school, but I always felt like an imposter, an outcast, and my curiosity was really, really discouraged.
I come from a family of five children and my sister and my brother both had a lot of problems in school, which I think because they had ADHD undiagnosed. So I actually was doing better than my brother and my sister at the time. So everybody just left me alone.
I had no idea I was so smart. I was told my whole life I was very mediocre. I remember in college, I wanted to be a journalist because I love communications. I did a paper and I turned it in, and my professor, a male professor, said I was the worst writer he’d ever had in his class. I remember his words, for years, hurt me, and I wouldn’t write. I write now. I’m actually a good writer. I write like I talk. I’m a very authentic writer. Am I the best writer in the world? I don’t know, but who cares? I’m my writer.
The imposter syndrome probably was the thing that hurt the most. You have people there telling you “behave, sit down, be quiet, stop being so boisterous, stop being so opinionated.” People don’t say that to me now because finally I’m 60, and I’m to the point where I have so many amazing experiences and accolades behind my belt. Finally, I get to be included, but my entire life I was always told I was not good enough, I was not smart enough, I was too chattery. I was broken.
What would happen if we didn’t do that to people? What if we said, I love your curiosity, I love your intensity. Wow, you’re only 14 years old. What can you do with that energy?– Debra Ruh
I wish that I knew that I had ADHD at a much younger age so I could use those tools that ADHD could bring me to make my journey maybe a little less stressful than it has been. If I’d had that data, I could have learned how to be even more effective. I’ve been pretty darn effective, but there was a lot of stress along the way that I wish I hadn’t have walked. Hopefully these conversations will help somebody else’s journey be maybe a little less stressful than mine was.
What strengths have helped you in your career and in your life?
The strength of empathy. Because I was told so many times in so many ways, “you’re not good enough.” Having empathy, allowing others to shine, allowing others to really be their whole selves, and allowing others to have the stage.
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