For over 30 years, the United States Information Agency ran cultural exchange exhibits in Russia, a project that spanned the bulk of the Cold War and ending less than a year before the break-up of the USSR. In all that time, Elizabeth Sammons was the only blind American woman to serve as one of the program’s cultural ambassadors. “I never thought of myself as a pioneer,” she recalled as we conversed by phone one morning in January, 2022. “I just thought, ‘I want to do this, and I’m going to find a way.’” This theme runs through her entire life, linking her time as an exchange student in Switzerland, a Peace Corps volunteer in Hungary, a teacher and disability advocate in Novosibirsk, and a writer and human rights activist in her native Ohio. Her adventures and achievements are too numerous to name, but you’ll get a taste below as we discuss topics including arts and literature, international marriages, disability in the USA and Russia, talking to strangers, and traveling with extremely low vision.
Itto Outini: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? Who is Elizabeth Sammons?
Elizabeth Sammons: (laughs) Let’s see. I’m a person of faith. I’m a globalist, by which I mean a citizen of the world. I’m a woman, and glad to be a woman, and I really enjoy the arts and writing and meeting new people. Those are probably the most important things about me.
Itto: I heard a story about a doctor giving advice to your mother.
Elizabeth: Yes. I was born in 1966, and I was blind. A doctor told my parents they should put me in an institution, but I was fortunate because my mother was a nurse, and my father was a librarian, and they loved me very much and didn’t listen to the doctor. Later, a couple of operations gave me basic color and shape detection in one eye, but I use braille and always carry a white cane.
Itto: Where did you grow up?
Elizabeth: Mount Vernon, Ohio. It’s a small town, and most people there didn’t have any connections to the international community. My family was the exception. My mother was a military child and spent five years in Japan as a girl, and she loved experiencing other cultures, and my father was very compassionate for the international students who were struggling at his college. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’d always have people over.
Itto: And that exposed you to people and cultures from around the world at an early age.
Elizabeth: Yes! The world came to me before I went to the world. I had so much curiosity and so much desire to learn languages and discover other cultures, and I think that had a little bit to do with being blind and growing up before the ADA. I wasn’t always welcome at social functions. Sometimes the other children wouldn’t play with me at school. I always felt—and still feel, sometimes—like an outsider in my own country.
Itto: This explains how you became a world traveler. When was the first time you traveled abroad?
Elizabeth: I visited Canada and Mexico with my family, but my first real adventure on my own was when I was 16. I graduated high school two years early and did an exchange year in Switzerland. I’d studied French and loved it, and I lived with a French-speaking family for a year while studying at an academic high school. It was difficult at that age, but also wonderful. It really opened up my world. That was 1982.
Itto: You went alone? Your family didn’t go with you?
Elizabeth: I went alone. My parents were probably braver than I was because they knew much more about the world than I did, and they still let me go.
Itto: Can you tell us—if you still remember—when you boarded the plane, were you afraid?
Elizabeth: I’m not afraid of anything!
Itto: That’s great! How about excited? What were you feeling?
Elizabeth: I was so excited! I was the only student with a disability in the program, and it didn’t matter! I didn’t even think about it. I just thought, “After all the books I’ve read, all the hours I’ve studied French, my dreams of traveling are finally coming true!” There were about 30 of us going as a group from the USA, all bound for different European countries. We had a big pillow fight on the plane!
Itto: That’s a fun way to start the program! Once you were there, did you feel homesick?
Elizabeth: Of course. But I’ve always loved meeting new people. That tempered the homesickness somewhat.
Itto: How do you go about meeting people?
Elizabeth: Oh, I meet people all over! The other day, for example, I was in a café, and I heard a woman singing along with a song very softly, and I stopped and said, “You have a lovely voice.” I found out that she’s a fellow writer. Then she started introducing me to other writers in the city.
Itto: That’s lovely.
Elizabeth: Sometimes, if I hear someone speaking with a foreign accent, or speaking a language I know, I’ll go to them and say, “May I help you?” I’m not afraid of strangers.
Itto: I was just having a conversation with someone, and we were discussing how, for blind people like ourselves, you don’t even think about it; you just go and talk to people on the street! Offering help, or asking for it, or just making conversation.
Elizabeth: Oh, yes! Some people offer me help out of nowhere, when I’m just walking along! I think it’s always best to be polite, whether you need their help or not. Sometimes some people with disabilities get angry about that, like, “I don’t need your help! If I needed help, I would’ve asked!” But think about it this way: what if, next time, that person sees someone who really does need help, and they don’t offer it because they’re afraid of offending someone, because you blew up about their good intentions?
Itto: I agree. Somebody once tried to tell me that if a stranger tries to help me, I should yell and hit them with my cane! And I was just like, “What are you talking about?”
Elizabeth: It makes me sad when people with disabilities react like that when someone tries to help them. 99 percent of the time, that person’s simply being kind. Sometimes they need to help you as much as you need help, or more. The only time to be wary, in my experience, is when someone seems overly helpful. Some people really do have ulterior motives. But usually, no. My advice is, be careful, but be friendly whenever you can.
Itto: You’ve traveled all over the world, and that’s worked for you?
Elizabeth: That’s worked for me.
Itto: Getting back to Switzerland—you said it was 1982. You didn’t have WhatsApp, text messages, iPhones. How did you keep in touch with your family?
Elizabeth: I wrote letters every week. I used a typewriter. In the whole year, we had maybe two or three phone calls.
Elizabeth: Phone calls were expensive!
Itto: You must’ve been strong.
Elizabeth: There was no alternative. Today, when people leave the country, everyone expects a lot of communication. We didn’t have that expectation then. I think it gave me a better immersion experience. If I was tired of speaking French, I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call my family; I had to keep speaking French until it started feeling natural. I’m grateful for my French immersion.
Itto: What did you do after the exchange program ended?
Elizabeth: I went to college and double-majored in French and Communications, and then I went to journalism school and got an MA. But I was eager to go abroad again. In college, I spent time volunteering with immigrants and refugees. The older ones would never really pick up English, so if they needed a letter written, for example, or a phone call made, I would help them. And that helped me, too. It kept me thinking internationally. I also had some pen pals, some young girls in Poland and what was then Yugoslavia, and I knew some students in Czechoslovakia. When I finished my Master’s in 1988, I decided to take a trip alone and visit them.
Itto: How did you connect with them in the first place?
Elizabeth: You know, it was so strange! Back in high school, my cousin sent me a list of people who said they wanted to correspond with people in the West. I wrote to all of them. There were maybe seven or eight, but only three or four wrote back to me, and we kept writing back and forth. It was just really exciting, receiving those letters with beautiful stamps and envelopes with different textures, different smells, from those faraway countries. When we first began to correspond, I never imagined we would meet, but after college, I had just enough money to make it work. First, I went to Poland, then to the Czech Republic, then to Hungary, then to Yugoslavia, and then to England to visit my college roommate. Now, when I look back, it seems amazing. But at the time, it was just like, “Well, I know these people, they’re friendly, they’re my age, so why not?”
Itto: You ended up living in Europe for a while. Why was that?
Elizabeth: After that trip, in fall of 1988, I went to Washington DC to study. At the church I attended, I met a woman who’d worked on the US Information Agency’s cultural exchange exhibits in the USSR. She told me about “Design USA,” the exhibit she worked on, and she said they needed guides. Cultural ambassadors, basically. And then she said, “You’d be perfect! You really should apply!” This was 1989—
Itto: That’s the year I was born!
Elizabeth: Perfect! Good things were happening that year. I thought, “I have no chance of getting this job, being blind. I have no chance at all.” But I told her, “That sounds great!” The next time she saw me, she asked if I’d applied, and I said, “Well…no.” And then we met a third time, and she said, “You know, I’ve already spoken to the people who direct this exhibit. You really need to apply, if you haven’t already.”
Itto: What were the application requirements?
Elizabeth: You had to pass some health and security checks, and you had to be bilingual in English and Russian, which I’d studied by then. Volunteering with the refugees had helped me greatly. You had to pass a fluency test, sort of like the TOEFL, and I was the only one who passed and got accepted who didn’t come from a Russian family. I’d never even lived in Russia!
Itto: Were there any other cultural ambassadors with disabilities?
Elizabeth: These exhibits went for more than 30 years, and everyone I’ve ever met who’s worked on them tells me that, out of the several hundred guides they hired over 30-plus years, I was the only one with a visible disability.
Itto: Wow! What was that experience like?
Elizabeth: Every day was different. I lived in three cities, first constructing the exhibits with a team, then answering visitor’ questions. There were thousands of visitors every day. There were little kids who’d ask me if we had computers in America. There were Communists who wanted to harass us. There were people who would ask, “Can you please help me go to America?” In my case, there were also people with disabilities, or sometimes people with disabled children, and they would say things like, “I know you understand our situation. Could you please, please help us find a cure, or bring our child to America to be treated.” It was different every single day.
Itto: Did you keep any sort of record?
Elizabeth: I did, as a matter of fact! I took along a little manual typewriter and wrote several pages every day, detailing the friends I made and the experiences I had, and sent letters once a week through the diplomatic post, so I knew I could write relatively safely. Actually, if I was using the communication technology we have today, I might not have kept such detailed journals.
Itto: Were you living alone or with a group?
Elizabeth: With a group. There were 24 of us guides, and we stayed together in a hotel. We worked every day, but in the evenings, we could do whatever we pleased. I met a lot of interesting people outside work hours. I met my first husband there.
Itto: He was Russian?
Elizabeth: Yes. A Russian doctor.
Itto: What was it like, having a partner from another country?
Elizabeth: It’s different for everyone, but when you have an international marriage, it’s almost like there are three cultures. You have your family’s culture, your partner’s family’s culture, and then a third culture sort of emerges between you. It can be really difficult, honestly. I read a statistic that, in the USA, about 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, but with marriages between Americans and Russians, it’s more like 75 percent. Mine ended after seven years. I’m sorry to be part of that statistic, but I still have no regrets. I was living honestly.
Itto: Did you return to the US after that?
Elizabeth: Not right away. I volunteered with the Peace Corps for a while, teaching English in Hungary. I worked with a news advocacy group in Central Asia. Then I ended up back in Russia, Siberia, teaching and doing disability advocacy. By then it was the ’90s, and I was beginning to realize that for me, as a blind, American woman, there were more career opportunities in Russia than in the USA. After Gorbachev opened up Russia, they desperately needed people who spoke good English. To them, my bilingualism was more important than my blindness. I was needed there.
Itto: What was it like coming home after that?
Elizabeth: It felt like walking into a burning house. I knew very little about the ADA because I’d been gone when all that was happening, but I knew my language skills wouldn’t be valued here, and I’d probably end up getting a job that wasn’t what I wanted, and that was exactly what happened. Also, by that time, I had a daughter, and my marriage had ended, so I was coming home as a single mom.
Itto: That must’ve been really hard.
Elizabeth: It was. I talked to one of the administrators at my state’s vocational rehabilitation agency, explaining how few opportunity there were for me here, as opposed to everything I got to do in Russia, and they asked if I’d be willing to go to Washington DC and say that to our congress, and I said, “Yes, I would be willing.” So, I went to the US Capitol, and I did testify that I’d had better opportunities in Russia in the 1990s than I did in the USA. I said I was glad to be home, but we needed better opportunities and more fair employment for people with disabilities. It made a big impact, apparently.
Itto: Thank you for being that voice and bringing those things to the table. What happened then?
Elizabeth: I got a job with Social Security. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I needed income and felt grateful just to be employed. I told them I spoke French and Russian, and on my very first day, they asked, “Would you be willing to interpret in Russian?” I said, “Of course! I’d be happy to.” My third day on the job, they had a Russian claimant who was trying to receive disability benefits, and I interpreted for that person. I was able to use my skills like that, in little ways, but even so, coming back to the USA represented a great loss of privilege. It was very, very hard.
Itto: How long did you work for Social Security?
Elizabeth: 2000 to 2005. Then I went to work with Ohio’s vocational rehabilitation agency, which is now called Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. Around that time, I met my wonderful second husband. This March, we’ll have been married 20 years.
Elizabeth: Thank you! I guess coming home wasn’t all bad! Anyhow, I worked there for 13 years, first at the Ohio State House, as our agency’s representative liaison with the legislature, and then in public outreach, writing and doing research for the agency. During that time, I was also volunteering with guests in our city, interpreting and hosting international visitors. Anyone in town who didn’t speak any English would come to our home because, usually, one of us would speak their language, or we’d find some way to help them. I left my job with the agency in 2018, and I’ve had more time since then for things like advocacy and creative writing.
Itto: What have you been writing?
Elizabeth: I published a novel in 2019, The Lyra and the Cross, which I’d been working on for many years. It’s a historical novel set in Greece and Israel in the time of Jesus, exploring the Greek and Jewish cultures and the religious conflicts of the world at the time.
Itto: Is that your only novel?
Elizabeth: I have two more manuscripts ready to go as soon as I figure out the best way to publish them. My second novel is set in the 1990s. It’s about a family that finds out they have many genetic concerns, and they start to worry that disabilities will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. The other thing I want to publish is a nonfiction manuscript adapted from the journals I kept when I was working in the Soviet Union. I recently returned to those journals and scanned them into the computer, and it’s a book now. I’m still seeking publishers, so anyone who wants to talk to me can email me.
Itto: It sounds like you’re doing a lot, even if you’re not officially working. What do you say to people who, when they have an opportunity not to work, just do nothing?
Elizabeth: I’ll tell anyone who wants to leave their job, “It’s okay to leave your job.” If you have the money and the opportunity, it’s no problem. But never leave just for the sake of leaving. Leave so that you can go toward something. Otherwise, you’ll end up lost.
Itto: What else do you do in your free time?
Elizabeth: I’m part of a racial justice task force at my church. We’re trying to educate our own rather wealthy, White congregation about the importance of social and racial justice issues. I’m not formally a member of any disability organizations, but I’m connected with many, and sometimes I volunteer. I’ve given speeches for a lot of schools and universities, and recently, for American Council for the Blind, Mobility International USA and the Peace Corps. I’m not much of a “joiner,” but I’m always friendly to people and organizations that are doing good things. I love sharing my experiences and mentoring young people.
Itto: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Elizabeth: I mentioned coming home to the USA as a single mom. My daughter Sophia is 25 now, and she works in international public health, focusing on under-served communities. I’m proud to say that she inherited my love of languages, and that she’s a gentler soul than I will ever be, and a better musician, too!
Itto: That’s lovely!
Elizabeth: Oh, and one more thing: at the beginning, I said I’m a person of faith. Spreading God’s love is really the biggest thing determining my relations with the world. Yes, I have a disability, and yes, that affects my everyday life, but being part of the world is so much more than having a disability, or even being a woman. I feel privileged to be able to spend my time writing and volunteering at the age of 55. When I write, I feel God’s pleasure. Life can be difficult, and it can be sad, but my curiosity and my faith are two things that have always, always kept me going. They’re the reasons I’ve lived such an interesting life.