This episode features an interview with Debra Ruh, CEO of Ruh Global Communications, as she shares her journey of how she came to be a leader in the disability inclusion field, after her daughter was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. Debra shares the formative events that shaped and inspired her to become the change agent that she is today, as well as the challenges she had to overcome along the way.
Kelly: It is truly my pleasure to welcome one of my favorite humans on Hidden Human, and it is Debra Ruh, CEO of Ruh Global Communications. Debra, thank you so much. I’m just so grateful that you’re with us today.
Debra: Yeah, thank you, Kelly. I think that you have such an important voice, and I’m really excited to be on your program. I think that people are going to really love your voice. And so, I think you’re going to have a huge global following. I’m excited to see that unfold.
Kelly: Well, I’m glad you’re part of the kickoff team. So, tell me, because you know here at Hidden Human we’re all about the authentic human behind the titles. So, tell me in one sentence what Ruh Global Communications does.
Debra: Well, always hard to do it in one sentence, but what we do is we are a global strategy and marketing communications firm that works with multinational corporations and the United Nations Agencies to be sure that people with disabilities are being fully included in the workforce and society as a whole.
Kelly: Oh my gosh. Well, that was a perfect one sentence. I don’t know about you, Debra, but I get my best ideas in the shower, probably because my mind is not getting interrupted with other things. And I was thinking about you this morning, and I was wondering why is this worth doing? Why was creating this company so worth it to you? What spoke to your soul about this?
Debra: Well, that’s a great question, Kelly. And I also get a lot of great ideas in the shower, so it would go back 30 years from today. Thirty years ago my husband and I had our first child. And when she was four months old, the doctors told us that she had Trisomy 21, more commonly referred to as Down Syndrome. And I remember thinking, “What? No, you’re wrong. My four month old baby doesn’t have an extra chromosome.” But they were actually right. And so, I remember as I was processing it, thinking, “I wonder what this means to my life.” Because one thing I always wanted to do, Kelly, I always wanted to make a difference in the world, and I know you’re going to dig into other parts of my life, and so we can explore that more. But I just felt that when we were blessed with this child with a disability, and I’m not being naïve here, I knew it was going to be difficult. And we had to walk a grief process, Kelly, because I thought I had one daughter, and then when she was four months old, the doctors told us that I had another daughter.
And so, we had to wrap our minds around it, but I just always felt that she was present in my life for a reason. And so, as my work unfolded, I decided to make really including people with disabilities in a more meaningful way, my life’s work.
Kelly: Oh my gosh, wow. I’m having … I got chills all over my body. I mean, you just always inspire me, Debra. So, you said, and I’m just going to pivot off your words, you said that you’ve always felt that you needed to make a difference in the world. I want you to go back, because we all know that our personalities are set at age six, so go back to your childhood, when was the first awareness that you had that this was your calling, to change the world? It doesn’t mean that you have to figure out what form it was in, just that kind of awareness coming into your consciousness.
Debra: You know, I think … I’m not exactly sure, but I will just give you some examples.
Debra: My mother, who’s still alive, and I really do love my mother, but my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder, and I remember as a child, my mother being very sad, very emotional, at some times very volatile, and she and my father, my biological father, they did not get along well. And there was a lot of abuse, and trauma, and fighting, and trying to commit suicide while we’re watching, and just some really bad things happened before I was six years old. I remember, Kelly, I don’t remember this but I saw on my report card, I went to first grade early. I went to first grade at five, which luckily they don’t do that anymore, but I got put in first grade early, I was five years old, and I failed the first grade. I didn’t go to Kindergarten, but I failed the first grade, and on my report card it said that all I did was sit in the back of the room and cry. And so, that’s sad to think about that.
Kelly: Oh my God.
Debra: I know, so I’m five years old and I’m crying in the back of the classroom, but there was a lot of violence happening at my house. And sometimes towards us with whippings, and beatings, and stuff, but mainly between the two adults in my life that were there to protect me. So, I think walking that trauma so early, you know? I remember wondering why the world couldn’t be a little bit nicer, better place. So, I think those formative times really shaped who I was of wanting to make the world maybe a safer place for other children like me.
Kelly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You know, I’ve experienced trauma like that, not in my childhood, but I’m a two time survivor of sexual assault, and I believe that people, like us, that go through things this traumatic, have the ability to lift other people up to the highest heights because we’ve seen what dark looks like, so we know where to go for the light. And clearly, you’ve built your whole career on bringing the light into the world, and I’m sorry my voice is shaking because I’m just so honored and inspired by you, Debra. I mean, just every time I talk to you I feel lifted up, and just thank you for everything you do. So, you have this traumatic situation in your childhood, did you have siblings experiencing this with you?
Debra: I did. I had a … I have a sister that’s 18 months older than me. And so, she recalls some of this trauma a lot better than I do. She recalls … And I feel so fortunate that I don’t recall this, but my sister recalls … She recalls us standing outside looking in the glass window in our living room, so we’re outside, and it’s my sister she’s four, she said I was there, I was about two-ish, and my little brother, who is one year younger than me, we were all looking in the window and my mother and father were fighting, and my mother grabbed a butcher knife and she starts stabbing herself in the stomach. And the police come, the ambulance come, it was in the paper, and I don’t, luckily, recall that. But I imagine that that probably had some impact on my mind even though I can’t recall it. And so, my sister actually recalls some things much better than I do because she was older than I as we were walking this path.
And, you know, I know that there was love in there, and light, and blah, blah, blah, all that stuff. But it was just a very, very traumatic time in my parent’s life, thus as little kids that are totally dependent on the parents, very, very, very traumatic for us as well.
Kelly: Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure. So, was there anybody outside of your immediate family, in that moment in your childhood, that had a positive impact on you as you’re going through all of this turmoil at home?
Debra: Yeah. I don’t remember anyone except my older sister, Elizabeth, because she … Even though she was … So, I was in my … I was two-ish, she was four-ish, but she sort of took on this mothering role of trying to protect the other siblings, and so … But at the same time, it was at a cost to my sister because my sister has continued to have some significant emotional issues, very severe depression, bipolar, things like that, that I’m sure were a byproduct, obviously, of this childhood. But, I do remember, Kelly, and I don’t understand … I am like you, Kelly, very spiritual, but I remember being confused a lot by my family.
Kelly: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Debra: By the things that my family … How sad and angry they were, and how prejudiced, in some ways, they were. I remember my aunt got engaged to a man, and oh my goodness, now this was … I was from Florida, Ocala, Florida, at the time is where we were living, and she was going to marry … Are you ready for this, Kelly?
Kelly: I’m ready.
Debra: She was going to marry a Yankee, ah!
Kelly: Oh my God. God forbid.
Debra: From Michigan.
Kelly: From Michigan?
Debra: Oh, we were just … Now, it didn’t matter that this man was filthy rich, he was so rich. We just were really … My family was just mortified that she would marry a Yankee. Talk about the South will never forget, it’s so ridiculous but-
Kelly: It really is. And you and I both know, I lived in Virginia Beach for eight years, and that mentality is still alive and well.
Debra: Yeah. It’s shocking. And I’ll just tell you this funny little ridiculous story. So, the family members, the adults, were talking about this man and oh, they went on and on, and I started thinking … I was really small, maybe four, three or four, and I remember thinking that he must be some kind of deformed monster or something just by the way they were talking about him. And I became more and more curious about this man, I guess, that was disfigured. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, so I just assumed something was majorly wrong with him. So, we were going to my grandmother’s and were going to finally meet him. And I remember running into the house, and he was in the kitchen, and sort of peeking around the living room door to see this monster. And I was so disappointed because he was just this man, and I thought, “What? I don’t understand. What’s the big deal?” So, even as a child, I didn’t understand the traumas, but I didn’t understand the prejudice and things like that. I think the way my brain formed was I started wondering how I could make my mother happy, and my father happy, and I would walk down the street and I would see how many people I could smile at and get them to smile back, and I would count it.
And I thought, “Okay.” I think about it now, and I think, “I must have been a real resilient little kid.” You know? But-
Kelly: I used to play that game as a child, too.
Debra: Really? Wow.
Kelly: Yes. And you said you’re from Florida? You know I grew up in South Florida? I mean, every time you and I talk it’s like one more layer and we’re so connected, it’s just interesting.
Kelly: So, what I’m hearing, though, is that you are so great at debunking labels, like the conversation we had even before we started recording, about people with disabilities, and putting the human first. I mean, that moment where you’re looking for this disfigured person, and oh, he’s just a man, it’s like label is already kind of dissipated because of that mindset.
Debra: Yeah. You know, I didn’t realize it at the time-
Kelly: Right, yeah.
Debra: I just … But as I’ve really done a lot of soul searching over the years as I get older, and older, and think about … And our good friend, our mutual friend, Doug Foresta, who I know is both of our producers of our shows, but also a licensed clinical worker, him and I have had some of these deep conversations. And it’s like, who are we really when we are … Are we broken, as children, when we go through these really hard experiences? Are we broken, as adults, Kelly, when we walk these experiences like the sexual abuse traumas? Or can … You certainly don’t want to go through them, but you know how that goes, you’re going to walk things in your life-
Debra: Can they actually make us more resilient? And can they make us better human beings? And maybe better able to help the human beings around us? And stop others from experiencing the same [crosstalk 00:12:23]-
Kelly: Yeah. I mean, I completely agree with you. I mean, for me, I think immediately after my trauma I think I locked into that label of broken. But now, after doing all the hard work, and digging through it, and just healing those pieces of me, I don’t believe anybody’s broken. I think that these things happen for you, not to you. So, would I … Do I want to go back and go through what I went through? Absolutely not, but I can really see where it was valuable, and it’s made me so much more empathetic, and sympathetic, and compassionate to people, that I don’t know that I would want to change it.
Debra: I agree, and I love that saying, that’s a tweetable moment. These things happen for you, not to you. And as you said, I think when people are walking in the middle of the trauma, certainly we’re not going to believe that. But depending upon how we get through that trauma, how we walk through that trauma, and we help others walk through the trauma, I think it can be something that you can use to make your life and other lives better, because we’re here for the contrast, we’re here to experience different things, and we’re eager to experience all this, as souls, I think. But life can be really tough.
Kelly: It really can. But I’m a big believer, as you are, that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, you know? This is moving us to wherever we go next. And I don’t know what that is, but I know for me, I’ve used the experiences where I’ve made mistakes or had trauma in my life, and I’ve leveraged them to help other people. You know, whether it’s my clients, or people in my family, or friends, it’s those deep experiences that forever change us that can also … I mean, you could go one way or another. You can go two ways, you can go down the dark path or you can go towards the light, and I will be honest with you that I was going down a dark path, and I had … You know, I mean, there was an attempted suicide, and fortunately I didn’t succeed in that. But I had a great doctor who knew what PTSD was all about, and really knew how to treat me. And I feel like it was a poignant moment in my life because with those moments, as you know, Debra, you’re ripped and stripped to the core.
I mean, you are just standing there as vulnerable as vulnerable can be. And it’s a raw moment, but fortunately I was able to come back from that, so …
Debra: And I think, Kelly, you’re so correct, like you said, you can go either way. But I guess, really, the way … What you really said was sometimes you go partially down one path, and then you’re like, “Wow, that hurts even more. Now, I have become my abuser. I had …” Because I also share your experience of a sexual abuse, I was also sexually abused by two different people including a clergy member, which was unfortunate, really. But … So, I think sometimes we start going down the dark path, you just can’t help it, you’re so traumatized. And then, with a lot of work and effort you can take those experiences, and you can use them to not only heal yourself, but heal others around you, and hopefully heal the world around you as well.
Kelly: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, and it’s … I’m so sorry all those things happened to you, but you know, I mean, I know that you and I are made of strong stock so you’re literally changing the world with the work that you do today. And I can’t discount that what happened to you, as you moved along your path, isn’t connected with what you do today. I mean, you see a population now, that is often ignored, and often excluded, which is something that we’ve done to ourselves, like you said, “I became the abuser.” Well, for me, the way I react to abuse or trauma is by sequestering myself from the world. I don’t know … You sat in the back of your classroom and cried to separate yourself because you were in so much pain. So, it’s so easy to recognize in this population kind of the similar pain, because we can only recognize in others what we have in ourselves.
Debra: And I agree. And you know, Kelly, I also … While we’re being very honest here, when I think back of the man that did marry my aunt, they divorced later but … As a kid, as I was trying in my mind to understand, I did think it was interesting that I wondered, as a little kid, if he was disfigured because … So, there was something that I was being taught at the time that if he was disfigured, that would explain why they were saying such horrible things about it. So, I mean think about that, especially based on the work I do now. I work with some really amazing, beautiful souls all over the world, that have disabilities. And a lot of these people with disabilities, they have been disfigured, maybe because of accidents, or they were born, or whatever, and that doesn’t in any way detract from these people. If anything, it makes them stronger and amazing. But it’s interesting that as a little kid, I was being fed so much stuff about who human beings were, you were bad if you were from different parts of the United States. You were bad if your color skin was different from mine. You were bad if you didn’t believe the same religious things. You were bad if you were disfigured.
I don’t even know all this ridiculous negative stuff that was trying to be fed into my brain, and my brain just kept saying, “But that doesn’t make sense to me.”
Kelly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I’m nodding my head because I’ve been through all … It’s the exact same thing, you know? I mean, that I went through, and I think everybody has unique gits and talents that they bring to this world, but I think we’re more alike than we are different, we really are. And the more … The older I get, and the more conversations I have with people like you, and even great conversations I have with people at the grocery store, or the janitor, or somebody who I believe lives on the streets. I mean, there is a lot of wisdom out there that if you really stop down and listen, we could really learn from each other instead of trying to fight against each other. But talk to me about your daughter. She started this whole journey for you with Ruh Global Communications, correct? She was the impetus?
Debra: Yes, she was my inspiration for starting a couple of companies. I created Tech Access in 2000, and the majority of the … Over 80% of my employees were technologists with disabilities, and they were just really-
Kelly: Oh my God. I love that. Okay.
Debra: Yeah. And they were so talented. And I … It was a for profit. I had a lot of people saying, “Be a non-profit.” I was like, “I don’t want to be a non-profit. I want to prove that a for profit technology company could thrive with this employee base” And we did really good, we really beat up on our competition because our competition, at the time, didn’t understand the value of employing people with disabilities. And so, we were helping corporations and government agencies and stuff make sure that their websites were accessible. And I thought, “Well, duh. Who better to tell you if it’s accessible for people with disabilities, than people with disabilities.” So, it just was very logical to me. And so, I grew it into a multimillion dollar business, there was a lot of wonderful, beautiful, amazing things, and oh my goodness, so many mistakes, so many trials and errors along the way.
And then, I created Ruh Global Communications after I merged Tech Access with another company in early 2013, and I just really wanted to start … There’s all these … We know, of course, there’s a lot of big corporate brands, and most of them have global footprints in some way or another. And they are doing things to … They’re working hard to include people with disabilities in different ways, but they’re not telling us the stories. And if we don’t know what you’re doing, then how can we applaud your efforts? How can we reward your efforts? And so, like even some of the things that you’re seeing come out from some of the big corporations like Home Depot, with Ken’s Kids and the work that they’re doing to make sure that individuals with cognitive disabilities are working. This is really … We should applaud these efforts, but many people don’t know about it, Kelly.
Kelly: Right. Well, Ken’s Krew is such a fantastic program. I mean, you and I have talked about it many, many times, and I was telling you before we jumped on the podcast that this is my first foray … I mean, I’ve had relatives that have had … Or is a person with disabilities, so I’ve had that kind of interaction, but I’ve never done this kind of work. And I think finding out that this … From the coaches at Ken’s Krew, and from the executive director, and from the program, that this is literally the purest form of human. I mean, I experienced it yesterday. These are loving people that are passionate, and want to work because they want to work, because it’s a sense of pride, and independence, and there’s no more story beyond that. So, remind me of your daughter’s name, though, Debra.
Debra: Her name is Sarah.
Kelly: Okay. So, what have you learned from Sarah?
Debra: I’ve learned so much from Sarah that it’s staggering. It’s interesting because as I said, Sarah has Down Syndrome, and I have been, my whole life, on a spiritual journey. You know, stay in the moment, do unto others as you’d have them do, all of those different things. I’ve been on a spiritual journey my whole life, tried different religions, I’ve just done a lot of different things, and what has always amazed me about my daughter is that I don’t have to remind her to stay in the moment. I don’t have to remind her to be kind to other people. I don’t have to … All these spiritual practices that I practice to be a better person, she just is, she just lives them. And I’ve actually written a book, I haven’t published it yet, about the spiritual lessons that she’s taught me, and right now … Yeah. I’m a little sad right now, I’m working on that emotion, when it comes to Down Syndrome, because there was recently a report coming out of Iceland saying … And I love Iceland, but just saying that they had irradiated Down Syndrome because what they’ve done is we can tell very quickly, within two weeks, if the fetus that you’re carrying … The baby that you’re carrying has Down Syndrome.
And so, what they’re doing is they’re aborting the babies so that the child doesn’t have Down Syndrome. I’m not even going to go into that topic, that’s not for this show, but … I understand why people would make those decisions, I do understand it. Down Syndrome can be very, very serious. There can be … Besides cognitive issues, there can be significant health issues, but at the same time, the gifts that are brought to the world from people like my daughter, and some of the people you met yesterday, they are so beautiful, and they’re … The way she looks at the world, she doesn’t judge other people, she doesn’t look at a person and say, “You’re less than because you believe something different than me. You’re a Republican. You’re a Democrat. You’re Jewish. You’re an atheist.” It doesn’t even occur to her to judge people that way. How she would judge someone is if somebody’s behaving really poorly, and has really bad energy, she … Maybe judge is the wrong word, but she will become fearful of those people. Sometimes when my mother is displaying really negative, negative energy, she really scares my daughter because my daughter doesn’t really live in that negative, judgey place. And so, in some ways it doesn’t make sense to her. She doesn’t understand why we wouldn’t be kind and empathetic to each other.
Kelly: Yeah. I mean, I experienced that yesterday with all the adults that I interacted with at Ken’s Krew. My favorite story is about Christopher, who I said, “Why do you like working at Home Depot?” And he goes, “Because I like it.” And it was … That’s it.
Debra: What do you want to know? I like it.
Kelly: There’s nothing more than that. It’s in the present moment, it’s just … It’s not creating stories or concepts on, “Oh, well the hours are crappy, and I have to break down boxes.” It’s just for the pure love and joy of working and being part of the community. And the other thing that really struck me was every adult that I met, it was they had been with Home Depot for 10 years, 13 years, 18 years, I mean this is a long time program, and these are adults that are committed to doing their jobs, and doing it to the best of their abilities, which is amazing.
Debra: And they’re proud. They’re proud and they’re loyal-
Kelly: Yes. Yes.
Debra: -To Home Depot. And if you’re part of this community of individuals with disabilities, you should be shopping at Home Depot, because Home Depot is taking care of our community.
Kelly: Yes, absolutely. And paying it forward. And paying it forward.
Kelly: And you know, one of the managers said to me yesterday, he’s like, “They’re just like everybody else.” Meaning the people that he works with, and he said, “You know, I know when I can push, and when I can get more out of people.” And to me, it’s not only affecting the adults that are part of this program, but its … This gentleman, the manager at Home Depot said to me … I said, “How did it change you? How did the program change you?” And he said, “It made me a better leader.”
Kelly: And I mean, that’s it, it’s right there, there’s nothing more than that. So, we’re getting close to the end of time, which I knew this was going to happen because I adore you, and I hope you will come back on the show. So, usually I end with three rapid fire questions.
Kelly: So, first question is, what books are on your nightstand?
Debra: Well, right now … I always have spiritual books on my nightstand. Soul of Money has become a very powerful book.
Kelly: I love that book.
Debra: Yes, I love that book too. I think it’s a book that we all need to read. It was written by Lynne Twist. But recently … I have been married 35 years and I have been so blessed with my marriage and my husband. He, sadly, got recently diagnosed with early-onset dementia, which scares the living heck out of me. And so-
Kelly: Oh, I am so sorry.
Debra: Yeah. You know, but it’s part of the walk, and we’re going to walk it together. So, I have the Myth of Alzheimer’s … Or no, it’s not the myth … Gah, I’m going to forget the name of it. Ending, that’s the name of it, Ending Alzheimer’s, and the Doctor’s name is Doctor Dale Bredesen, and it’s fascinating reading. It’s fascinating because Alzheimer’s is a crisis in the United States. We’re expecting 45 million Americans to have it by 2030. It’s going to be catastrophic. And this doctor in San Francisco is actually reversing Autism … I mean Alzheimer’s in certain patients, and it’s fascinating. So, I have spiritual books, and I also have The Course in Miracles on my nightstand-
Kelly: Oh, yes. Of course. Yeah. Okay, so what’s on your playlist?
Debra: I’m a big audible … I love to have stories read to me, and so I’m reading stories about dementia and Alzheimer’s obviously right now, but I also am reading a lot of stories about … For some reason, recently, I’m just fascinated with Shamanism. I don’t know that much about it, even though I have a little bit of Cherokee in my bloodline. But, so there’s a book called Lucy that I’m reading that it’s just very interesting and entertaining book.
Kelly: Well, Debra, do you connect with any kind of music? I mean, on your iTunes playlist, do you have any like playlists that go … Songs that you go to just kind of to lift you up during the day?
Debra: I find that I love music and I think it takes us to a different energy level, but I like a lot of the just zen music-
Debra: -Because it seems to help my mind function better. So, I have a lot of zen music. But I also am a big Zumba girl, so I’m a big salsa and Latin music lover as well.
Kelly: Well, I always knew you were a spicy female. Okay, so final question, what are you most grateful for in this moment right now?
Debra: I’m grateful for you, Kelly. I’m grateful for your voice, and I’m grateful for what you’re trying to give back to the world, and I just know that you’re going to continue to make a huge difference. And I’m also grateful for our producer Doug Foresta. He has been … To say he’s a gift in my life just is not enough. He’s just been a very, very powerful influence of good in my life, good and growth. So, I would say I’m grateful for both of you.
Kelly: I know. And I’m grateful for both of you too. I mean, Doug was the conduit for us to connect, so I couldn’t be more grateful. So, give me the URL for Ruh Global Communications, and the best way for people to get in touch with you.
Debra: Okay. It’s www.RuhGlobal.com and I’m very active on social media at Debra Ruh, D-E-B-R-A R-U-H. I’m on Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram. And I have a lot of followers on Twitter, I’m very honored to have a very large community following me on Twitter. But I’m active on Human Potential at Work on Facebook, and I’m on Linkedin, very, very easy to find. And very proud to work with the major multinational brands that I work with, and very involved in United Nations agencies like the International Labor Organization. I’m just very proud to work with leaders that are trying to make the world a better place.
Kelly: Well, I’m sure they’re just as luck to work with you, because I mean, who wouldn’t be able to … I mean, it’s just a blessing to interact with you on a daily basis for the brief times that I get to have with you, so thank you so much for that. And I really, really grateful to you for coming on the show.
Debra: Yeah, thank you. I’m excited to see where this show’s going to lead, and I’m very excited for your voice to be heard around the world.