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How a Passion for Languages Led to an Interpreting Career and International Life

From childhood, Elizabeth Sammons knew that she had a talent for language. She would weep when listening to a foreign-language film, so passionate was her desire to know what people were saying. Living in a small town in Ohio, she had little opportunity to develop this until studying high school French. Additionally, her family cultivated relationships with foreign students and other visitors to the college where her father was a faculty member.

 Perhaps this love of the unknown also came from being bullied because of her blindness in school. “I was in normal school before mainstreaming and ADA laws came out,” said Sammons, “Kids did not know how to interact or treat me so they would call me names, taunt and slap me.” As a result, Sammons decided to get out of school as soon as possible. She worked hard, including taking summer classes like the French she loved, and graduated two years early. Immediately after graduating, she enrolled in a foreign exchange program and was off to Switzerland for one year to study in a French-language high school. “My family had hosted a student in our home before so I was already familiar with the program,” she recalls. While there, she learned the value of excellent public transportation, which enhanced her independence. Additionally, she learned that the acceptance and empowerment she got from her host family and classmates helped heal some of the bad memories from her earlier schooling. She now understood that being blind didn’t mean being automatically excluded.

Living and Working Internationally

When she returned to the U.S., Sammons completed college and graduated with honors in a double major in French and Communications from Eastern Nazarene College in Boston, Massachusetts. Afterwards, she earned an M.A. in Journalism from Ohio State University. She relocated to the Washington, DC area and was recruited to be a guide for the U.S. Information Agency’s ongoing citizens exchange exhibit to what was then the Soviet Union. She developed Russian as her second foreign language while in college. “I volunteered with elderly refugees immigrating to the USA,” she said. “Often I would make calls or write English letters on their behalf, while they generously shared stories, corrected my grammar and explained the culture they knew well.” To apply for the position, she took a Russian test and was the only person not of Russian background or a Russian major to pass. “This was in 1989, just before the ADA. I was the first visually disabled person hired for that exhibit in its 40-year history.” Sammons traveled for the next seven months with the exhibit, interpreting and meeting hundreds of new and interesting people.

Sammons’ next jaunt with international travel and languages was with Peace Corps. Her assignment was to teach English in Hungary for two years. Unfortunately, she was only able to complete one year because of unexpected health issues. After she fully recovered, she was off again to Russia. But this time it was for love. She met a man and in 1993 they married. For the next five years, she built a family and career. She worked as a nonprofit manager of a news advocacy group in Central Asia, and as a teacher, interpreter, marketer, and cross-disability advocate in Novosibirsk, Siberia. “My position working with cross disabilities was very interesting,” Sammons recalls. “This was new territory because disability groups did not interact much with each other before then.”

Returning to the US

In 2000, she returned to the USA with her daughter. It was one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make. “My daughter was three at the time, I had just divorced and I had a life and world in Russia,” Sammons laments. “I thought coming back to the US I would be relegated to be a nobody again like I was in school. I was very respected for what I could do overseas instead of challenged for my limitations at home.” Her disability was not an issue in employment for international jobs the way that it is in the United States. “When I am interpreting, roles are reversed, I am the one who really knows what is going on,” she said. “Whereas in the sighted world, normally people know what is going on and I am the one who is sometimes unaware.”

For the next six months, she searched daily for jobs and quickly landed a position with the Social Security Administration as a claims representative. She took this position because interpreter jobs were very scarce. “When I came back to the states, I considered moving to an international city, like DC or New York,” said Sammons. “But I needed the family support system to help me raise my daughter.” She worked for SSA for four years until she moved on to politics. In 2005, Sammons began as a legislative liaison for Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. From 2011 to 2018, she provided OOD with writing, research, and outreach services as a program administrator, de facto a community relations coordinator.

Elizabeth Sammons on right with cover of her book The Lyra and the Cross on left

Today retired, Sammons continues her passion for literature. In 2018, she published The Lyra and the Cross, a novel portraying the relationship between Stephen and Paul in the Bible from a Greek perspective. Visit her literary blog.

Advice to Prospective Interpreters

When asked about pursuing a career as an interpreter, Sammons gives this advice. “Put yourself in a place that forces you to really learn the language,” she said. “You can find people in restaurants, social service centers or churches who need you.” She also shares that when traveling internationally it is important to learn languages because if you don’t have vision or cannot speak a second language you will become both deaf and blind. She goes on to say, “traveling abroad is not the same as living and working abroad. It takes time to get to know a place, its people and culture.” She strongly encourages anyone who wants to become an international interpreter to review the Mobility International USA website at www.Miusa.org. “This resource did not exist when I was coming along,” she said. “It gives common sense advice and is a great source for people coming to the US, studying abroad and looking for foreign exchange opportunities.” She encourages anyone with a good skill set to consider volunteering in Peace Corps or other government-sponsored service organizations such as AmeriCorps. “Say yes whenever you can, not no, and knock on doors, because that’s the way to open your world a little wider.”


Walking the Employment Talk

What Would You Think About Hiring a Person with a Disability?

What if the next person who walked in the door to interview for a position in your company walked in using a white cane? Explained that they used a screen magnifier on their computer, or pulled out a handheld magnifier to read some of the documents you presented to them?

Might you wonder if they were capable of doing the advertised position? Would you worry about the liability in your workplace of someone with a vision impairment? Is there a quiet voice whispering in your ear, "It’s the right thing to do, hiring a person with a disability?"

The 2018 NDEAM theme—America's Workforce: Empowering All—appears in the bottom half of the poster in red and navy blue lettering. Below the theme are the words National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The setting of the image is an office meeting room where an employee wearing a red polo shirt and using a power wheelchair is presenting the outcome of recent research on his laptop computer to three co-workers. At the bottom left is DOL's logo with the following words: OFFICE OF DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT POLICY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR. Center bottom is hashtag NDEAM and the URL to ODEP's website dol.gov/odep.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the theme is "America's Workforce: Empowering All." You might be surprised to learn that "walking the talk," on hiring an employee who is blind, visually impaired, or who may have some other disability is one of the smartest things you can do for the bottom line of your business!

Sure, for many of us, the idea of offering a job or opportunity to someone with a disability, may conjure up all kinds of emotions—some of them very conflicting, and most of them based on misperceptions. Consider for a moment some of these facts:

Workplace Accommodations Won't Affect the Bottom Line

Most workplace accommodations cost little or nothing. The average cost of a workplace accommodation is a one-time cost of less than $500 ($1.37 per day for the first year). Research documents lower turn-over rates for employees with disabilities, higher safety records, and less time out of work due to accidents. Workers with disabilities are absent less often than co-workers according to studies at Dupont and IT&T research. (See "Myths, Misconceptions, and Realities Of Disability" for more information).

Workplace innovation increases, research shows, with diversity among employees. According to Sipperstein et al, 92% of American consumers surveyed in 2005 viewed companies more favorably if their hiring included workers with a disability.

Employers--as you can tell from the research, walking the talk, opening the door and welcoming a diverse workforce, one that includes individuals with disabilities is one of the smartest things you can do to boost your bottom line!

Check out the stats on the Department of Labor website or the Forbes article on The Benefits of Disability in the Workplace".

More About Employment of People with Vision Loss

Ideas for Employers

Job Accomodation Questions and Answers for Employers

Legal Considerations for Employment


Finding a Job When You Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Christine Ha is a blind chef; Gary Vermeij is a blind biology professor; Joleen Ferguson is a visually impaired physical therapist, and Bernie Vinther is a blind machinist. How about you—what is your anticipated career? In what field are you highly motivated to work?

Whether youÕre still in school and in the early stages of preparing for employment, or youÕre looking to advance in your career or change careers entirely, itÕs wise to map out how you will prepare for and conduct a successful job search.

As a person who is blind or visually impaired, your job search will not only include the typical phases but will also include determining when and how to disclose your visual impairment and how you will address potential employer concerns.

CareerConnect is here to guide you through the entire job seeking process.

Read the following article, "Find a Job as an Individual Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired" to learn how to:

  • Prepare for and Conduct a Job Search
  • Find Job Leads
  • Identify the Fastest-Growing Industries in America
  • Develop Strategies for Getting Hired
  • Explore Job Postings

Next, read "Disclosing a Visual Impairment" to help weigh the pros and cons of sharing your eye condition and required job accommodations at different times during the hiring process.

Lastly, read "Addressing Liability, Accessibility, and Transportation" to guide you through proactively eliminating employer concerns related to hiring an individual with vision loss.

So go, equip yourself for the job, attain it, and then add yourself to the ever-growing database of "Our Stories: People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Succeeding at Work and Life."

Additional Resources

Careers for Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals

Tips for Exploring Careers as a Job Seeker Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

The Job Seeker's Toolkit


Christina Holtzclaw Uses Her Career to Empower People with Disabilities

For the last 14 years, Christina Holtzclaw has worked tirelessly at the Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living in Rome, Georgia. This nonprofit organization assists individuals of all ages who have all types of disabilities and helps them reach their goals of living independently. They serve 15 counties, and the majority of the staff are people with disabilities. In her role as assistant director, Holtzclaw meets one-on-one with consumers in the community, collaborates with the office nursing home coordinator and other staff, works on the budget and finances, meets with the board of directors, and whatever else needs to be done. The core services of the Center are independent living skills training, information & referral, peer mentoring, self-advocacy, and transition services. "Peer support is the most unique service that we offer," Holtzclaw said. "I would have given up if I didn’t have others with disabilities in my life as I pursued my career."

Growing Up and Going to School with a Visual Impairment

Holtzclaw developed congenital cataracts from infancy. She was born premature and stayed in an incubator that caused damage to her eyes, particularly her retina. She is the oldest of three children and grew up like most children. "I didn’t realize until I was in school that I had a vision problem because my parents treated me like everyone else," she remembered. "I appreciate that now more than I did back then."

Holtzclaw attended regular public school, even though she wanted to go to the Macon Academy for the Blind, which is the residential school for blind and visually impaired children in the state of Georgia. Her parents wanted her close to home, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had just passed. This act allowed for disabled children to attend federally funded public schools. But staying close to home presented some new and interesting challenges for Holtzclaw. First, her teacher had just been hired. Second, there was little to no assistive technology to her in class or at home to get assignments done; all she had was a typewriter.

It was not until the third grade that things began to improve. She got a CCTV to read printed materials, a tape recorder, and black magic markers. She also began to learn braille. But in order to learn braille, she had to attend two schools. The vision teacher was located at another school that had more visually impaired students whereas she was the only one at her school. So, she was bused across town for class. "We were some of the first blind students at that time," Holtzclaw said. "Everyone was just kind of scrambling to figure it out and make it work."

College Life and Accommodations

Holtzclaw persevered, graduated high school, and headed to college at Shorter University. She had learned white cane mobility skills but thought it best to get a guide dog to travel around campus. Once on campus, her accommodations were much better. "Computers were making their way in, and I had readers to record my lessons onto tape recorders," Holtzclaw explained. "I also used a Kurzweil reader because there was a blind professor on campus, and he allowed me to use some of his equipment."

Finding a Job

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1996, she began to job search. But like most blind people, it was very difficult. "I was feeling very discouraged," she said. She eventually found a job working at a sheltered workshop and worked there almost one year. But during that period, her self-esteem took a hit. "This was not what I wanted, but it was work," she recalled. Holtzclaw shared that at the time she felt "ashamed and embarrassed" about working at the sheltered workshop; however, she feels differently now. "I am glad that I had that experience because I know what it is like, and it helps to do the job I do today," she said. "I can see why people give up and get discouraged."

In 1998, a new company came into the Rome area hiring customer service representatives. Even though this was not in her field of study, Holtzclaw worked with her vocational rehabilitation counselor and was hired. She worked at Sitel Corporation for five years until the company closed. This job was a much better experience. "I had better pay and benefits," Holtzclaw said. "I also met my husband there and purchased a home, too." She also got accommodations with assistive technology which was especially critical because glaucoma was starting to develop around this time. But on a sad note, her guide dog passed away, and she decided not to get another one.

Holtzclaw found herself job searching again but only for a short time. She heard about an organization opening called Disability Link-NW that served the disabled population in her area. Later the name was changed to the Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living. It was in its infancy and just getting off the ground. In 2004, she applied for their independent living coordinator position and was hired.

"When I went in for the interview I couldn’t find the building because it was so new, there was one fax machine that was not even hooked up yet and one desk," she explained. "I helped build the organization from the ground up. I even was involved in the design of the current building, making sure it was accessible and accommodating." It was only three staff members in the beginning, and now, there are eight today. Holtzclaw was upfront about her abilities and limitations during her interview because she knew that this agency would be serving people in rural parts of the community with little to no transportation. "I said in the interview that I couldn’t drive, and the director said that she couldn’t either," Holtzclaw chuckled. They were able to work things out, and she even went back and got a guide dog again to assist her better in commuting for work.

That was 14 years ago, and Holtzclaw is still there but now works as assistant director. "This job has been the biggest blessing of my whole life," Holtzclaw said cheerfully. "This was what I always wanted." Holtzclaw credits her happiness at work with the fact that she can relate to her consumers. She is able to assist because she remembers what it is like on the other side of that desk. "I think it is hard to take advice from someone who has not faced the same issues," she said. "I think relatability is highly underestimated."

Other Stories from Employees with Vision Loss

Our Stories: People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Succeeding at Work and Life

About the World of Business and Job Seekers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

About Blind or Visually Impaired Workers and the Corporate World

About Careers in Rehabilitation and Persons with Vision Loss


Topics:
Employment
Low Vision
Personal Reflections

Traveling an Unfamiliar Route and Taking a Risk as a Person Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

Suppose you’ve graduated your orientation and mobility lessons and you’ve successfully mastered a handful of routes. You can get from home to work and back, to Starbucks and back (because let’s face it, this route is perhaps the most vital), to the gym and back, and to the grocery store and back. You and the cane have found your rhythm; shorelining, well, it’s practically a breeze; and bus travel now only gives you a smidge of anxiety. You’ve made great strides. But now the guys at the office invite you to a new restaurant in town. You’re determined to get there independently. Are you up for the challenge?

With the collection of orientation and mobility tools and skills under your belt—but please, if you haven’t received proper training in travel skills for those who are blind or visually impaired, start there and this time hire an uber—it’s time to create a plan (and just as important, a backup plan) and take a measured risk.

Don’t let fear rob you of an independent life.

I know this can be overwhelming. It’s why I want to share former CareerConnect program manager, Joe Strechay’s words as he reflected on tackling an unfamiliar route despite the uncertainties.

Read "Push Your Limits and Take Measured Risks." Know that all travelers who are blind or significantly visually impaired have to make a decision as to whether they will push themselves past their comfort levels…time and again.

Additional Resources

Why Should Blind or Visually Impaired Individuals Practice Orientation and Mobility Skills?

Community Travel Skills—a Predictor of Workplace Success for Individuals Who Are Blind

Find a Local Orientation and Mobility Service Provider


Topics:
Employment
Getting Around
Low Vision
Planning for the Future