Profile of Elizabeth Sammons, Legislative Liaison
Intro: When Elizabeth Sammons returned home to the US after ten years of living and working in Russia and testified before a House Committee in Washington, DC, saying "It's a lot easier for me to get a job in Russia than in my own country," she had no idea where those words would take her. Come along into a day of work with this Legislative Liaison and CareerConnect Mentor to find out how lobbyists affect public policy decisions.
The Story: Although my official job title is Legislative Liaison, I could easily relabel myself with simpler words as a "Governmental Lobbyist." Much of the work I do is like that of the lobbyists you picture for high-paying companies. However, I work for the state at Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission, keeping an eye on legislation that is being considered which will affect Ohio residents with disabilities.
There are two typical kinds of days; either legislature is in session or it isn't. And that dictates how my day will go. Sometimes I think of my job as being on a ship; one day it is good, all sunny and smooth sailing when suddenly a dark 30-foot wave crashes over us. That wave could be an adverse bill being discussed or passed, something that affects the budget, or perhaps a bad article hitting the papers. It's a very unpredictable ride. But, on a scale of 1 to 10, I rate my job satisfaction a healthy, solid 8.
I bus in at 7:30 a.m. and check the news to see what has transpired. To do this I use NFB's Newsline, a clipping service from political news agencies, and read what people have sent me and check professional disability listserves. I try to keep up to the minute with what's going on in the state. I'd say 20% of my time is spent reading local, state, or federal news of a political or disability nature.
If it is a legislative day, I work across the street from my office at the state house where bills are being talked about—for example, a House bill that requires snow removal from disability parking spaces within 24 hours. I go over with my laptop to listen and take notes. If a house member asks something specific like, "Is there enough disability parking in Ohio?" I immediately think, "Ah ha!" noting that this house member may be a future comrade and disability rights supporter. If the bill is going to have an effect on my agency and our mission I may try to meet with that representative, so I'll talk with my boss, look at the language of the bill, and sometimes do further research to gain more information or clarify intent.
Networking is a very big part of what I do. Any day when I can meet with colleagues from other agencies that is always a plus. Even if it's just over lunch to talk and say, "Hey, what's going on," people are more open and better able to see how we might work together on a bill or other proposal if we keep good ties and share information.
Another part of my job involves inquiries. Legislators contact state agencies when they receive a question or complaint, mainly from consumers or businesses. I've found most often that issues blow up from a lack of communication. I try hard to address people's concerns by trouble shooting, making sure all parties are around the same table and that concerns are made clear. I can't always give the answer someone wants, but I do find that 90% of the time, a good explanation is worth the effort and listening certainly calms people down. I like to give alternative resources if our agency isn't able to provide what's needed. I recently took a class in dispute mediation which has been helpful in the inquiry process. Educational development is always good.
I worked alone in this office for six months recently until a new colleague was appointed. It's important, whether I'm alone or not, to work with many people in various positions; i.e. consumers, colleagues, counselors, supervisors, legislators, aides, staff from the governor's office, and other disability and advocacy groups. By far, the most valuable thing I can offer those I work with is to be honest, embarrass no one, and do what I promised. The biggest State Street lobbyists will tell you the same thing if they're in it for the long haul and not the quick kill. I would advise anyone, always be upfront with people. Promise less, then do more, and when you are wrong, admit it. Never shy away from saying, "I'm sorry." This gives you more credibility in the long run. People are generally forgiving when you do this. I have proudly earned the label of being a straight-shooter for following this practice.
How I got my job is a rather interesting road. I fell into it as a result of having spent 10 successful years living and working in Russia. When I moved back to the USA in 2000, I felt like an immigrant without an accent. Along with being 34, divorced and a single mother, my visual disability moved back with me too. And, boy, the country had really changed during the ten years I was gone! To find work and get back on my feet, I used services from my agency's Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired. I sent resumes absolutely everywhere that looked even vaguely interesting. Within 6 months, through the bureau's connections I was hired as a Claims Representative for the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Let me share with you why it is important to always be willing to use whatever skills you have and how this can lead to a trail of opportunities. After I was hired I told my Social Security boss that I spoke Russian. Two days later, I was asked if I would feel comfortable going to a hearing to interpret on behalf of a Russian-speaking claimant. "Yes, absolutely," I replied. So with that one act I won my boss' respect, but also some envy from my colleagues as some kind of upstart wanting recognition. When I learned this, I was shocked, because, after all, I just had the skill to offer, and why not?
I often commented on it being far easier for me to get employment in Russia than in my own country. There, public transportation allowed me to go nearly anywhere I needed to go. My bilingual status, particularly as a native English speaker, opened many opportunities, including teaching, translation and business contacts using my US-English cultural knowledge, which was lacking from the international business community of Siberia and Central Asia. People looked at my ability far beyond any disability. Additionally, there were not the worries about liability or health insurance. So I was extremely fortunate and able while there, and I keenly felt it was a privilege.
These comments on my view of working in Russia as compared to the USA haunted me, as after being hired in 2000, I gave my testimony on behalf of RSC's budget at the State House in early 2001. Then the following spring I was asked to testify in Washington, DC, before one of the house committees again hoping to protect the budget for the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission. I accepted the invitation gladly. It was my way of saying thank you to an agency which had saved my career when I returned to America.
Learning the computer software program of the SSA was very challenging, but I stuck it out. Eventually I applied for SSA's Upward Bound Program and enjoyed it, but the jealousy issues from colleagues continued. The Upward Bound program let me do what I really wanted to do, not processing claims, but more along the lines of public relations. My background was in journalism and French, so using those skills I would call people saying "Hi, we can help." Taking the initiative, I promoted the SSA among other venues such as at National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind conventions and had materials embossed in braille, taped, large print, and in Russian and other languages.
After some time had passed, the Director of Legislative Affairs for Ohio RSC who had invited me for the 2001 and 2003 testimony let me know that a position I might be interested in was about to become available. I respected this man and wanted to learn from him before trying to stick my foot in the door. In the end I was hired as the person in 2nd liaison position.
RSC helps Ohioans of all disabilities to access vocational training, find jobs and develop careers, as well as making all disability determinations for Ohioans applying for SSI/SSDI. Having worked for the SSA I know the process and procedures and this knowledge comes in very handy with my current work. So you can see how knowledge learned from one job can transfer over and help with another job.
The previous Director I worked under is now a legislative liaison for a different agency. I think we are the only two liaisons with visible disabilities commonly around the Statehouse. When people with disabilities work, it shows the legislature and the public what we can do, that we're not tokens at all.
The modifications/accommodations for me to be successful in my career and in my personal life have been low tech devices and environmental changes such as working in natural light as opposed to artificial light. I use a white cane, Jaws on my computer, a Victor Reader for occasional recording, a Perkins Braille Writer for writing notes to use during speaking engagements and keeping phone numbers. I have an old cell phone that I prefer over the new ones as it is very tactile and simpler to use. I don't care for all the bells and whistles on the newer models.
I'd like to comment on the importance of braille. If you want to read and/or write unobtrusively and keep your own true independence, you'd better know braille. One of the best examples I can think of is its importance to me in giving speeches. It is truly a tool of lasting independence.
The best part of my job is working for an agency I really believe in. It is a matter of personal pride and integrity. Another interviewer once asked, "What do you do that other lobbyist can't?" I told him that in this business there is an unwritten rule that lobbyist or liaisons are to greet legislative representatives first, never the other way around. However, since when I walk into the chambers and can't see who's there or exactly where to sit, legislators often come up to greet me and tell me who they are. When I first introduce myself, I say "I don't have magic RADAR ears, so I might not recognize you," and they have unanimously thanked me for telling them how to best interact with me and now follow this proper protocol for interacting with people who are blind or visually impaired. To me, this extra effort says more about them as people than most anything. (Secretly, it was fun getting to break this unwritten rule and seeing other lobbyists' reactions! <Smile>)
As with any job, there are also aspects of this one I'm not crazy about. When you're on a ship like this you can get a little seasick. The unpredictability that comes with this kind of work can be difficult at times. As necessary as it often is, going "cap in hand" can be very uncomfortable because everyone is asking for money and the pie can't be made any bigger. One astute man said, "Being in finance as a Senator is the art of sharing misery equitably." We are just one among many asking for help.
The most important advice I can give is that you can never say "thank you" enough. When I got my first US job, I wrote individual letters to my counselor, my employment specialist, and even to supervisors. I wrote that if I could ever do anything to help them I would and I meant it. I wanted them to know it. That's why I stood up and testified to live out my promise and my thanks.
A grateful heart is so important. Always do a little more than what's asked of you. Small examples could be those things I did with my SSA job by volunteering to use my foreign language skills, putting together a local resources guide for claimants and volunteering to write articles for our newsletter.
For those who are a little older, be a mentor and give back, especially in the blind community. Reach out in ways people don't expect. One thing I do that people don't expect, and which has become my trademark, is signing my name in braille over print. Sighted people really enjoy this and it drives home the importance of Braille literacy.
More advice: sometimes things will happen at work that will upset you but don't shoot yourself in the foot by acting inappropriately. Never develop a sense of entitlement just because you receive services. Don't expect people in general to know about blindness; you have to tell them, teach them, explain it to them. Prove yourself.
When I was in the 5th grade my mother said, "As your parents we have done everything to get you in to this school; now it's up to you to prove if we were right to do so." Once you've been given an opportunity to work, prove that your employer was right to hire you and give them more than they asked for.
There's a line from a spiritual, "My soul looks back in wonder," and wonder I often do. With amazement and gratitude as its sidekick, the wonder grows richer when I think about how I got from there to here.
The Contact: Elizabeth Sammons