“I was trying to find something to do for the summer between high school and college and ended up taking Russian, and I loved it. So, I really went to college just to keep taking Russian,” says Suzanne Ament. That class ultimately led to eight trips to the Soviet Union/Russia, a PhD. In History, and a career in college teaching.
Both Ament and her sister, who is also blind, were educated in public schools reading print. She lost her ability to read large print early in college and the ability to detect colors about ten years later. As a result, she learned basic mobility skills and Braille early in her college years. Currently, she can only detect light and occasional movement. “It’s not really anything I can rely on,” Ament says.
After receiving her B.A. in Russian Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her M.A. in Russian Studies from Georgetown, Ament went to Indiana University to get a PhD. In History “because you couldn’t do a Russian Studies PhD.”
With her vision continuing to deteriorate, Ament got a guide dog in 1986. “The dog was a good decision, even though it was not one I made easily.” As far as she knows, she is the first person to go to the Soviet Union with a dog guide.
“There wasn’t really much for blind people in the Soviet Union,” she comments. “So you weren’t encouraged to be independent. But people were pretty willing to help. I was told, however, by other blind people I met that I was treated differently because I was a foreigner.” Ament taught a college-level conversational English course for a semester but found “pretty quickly that I was functionally illiterate because the accessible technology that was available is pretty primitive by comparison with what we take for granted in the United States.”
“Getting around there is pretty rough,” Ament recalls. “There were packs of wild dogs, broken glass, holes in the floors of buses, not to mention being perceived as a foreigner. You had to be prepared for cars driving on sidewalks at you, parking any which way, and no respect for streets or sidewalks. All those things made having a guide dog pretty tough."
“Having said all that, I loved every second I was there,” Ament says. “I loved the people, the culture, hearing what people thought about, talking with them, and singing their music. I just pretty much loved everything that happened to me while I was there.”
Ament says that, when in graduate school, her experience was “that people are pretty much behind you; they want to help you. There was money for readers and technology, and people were generally on your side.” Once she started looking for full-time employment, however, she found that, despite her education and travels, “it got a lot harder to find people who were really interested in dealing with you as somebody who was different.” She speculates that administrator’s concern for the ADA, budgetary considerations, and “lack of knowledge” all played a part in the problems she experienced.
The break-through came when she encountered an employer at Butler University who thought that her being blind “was an asset.” “What better opportunity,” he said, “than for the student to have exposure to somebody who is different than what they have mostly dealt with as a teacher.” “That gave me the idea that maybe this isn’t such a disability,” Ament recalls. “It’s more of a differenceability. As a result, I shifted some of my emphases in what I said in interviews.”
Her primary responsibility was an interdisciplinary sophomore core course. We covered history, geography, literature. We brought in speakers, went on trips.” It was not exactly what she had been trained for or really wanted to teach. “But, teaching that course is what got me the job I have now because my department requires that you teach World History if you are a ‘non-Americanist’. I would not have had enough background in world history for them to even look at me without that experience. When you get opportunities, they may not be the best opportunity at the moment, but it might give you something that you need for some other better opportunity down the road.”
In 2001, Ament “moved lock, stock, and barrel out of state knowing no one to Southwest Virginia” to accept a position in history at Radford University. She teaches three sections of Western Civilization along with a class in some aspect of Russian history (Czarist Russia, Stalin, etc.) every term. In addition, she also has volunteered to teach a survey course in Chinese history. “The University has put money and backing into Chinese studies, so I wanted to be current with what the University was supporting.”
“The one thing I don’t do,” she says, “is teach the sophomore history class, The Historian’s Craft.” It focuses on how to do footnotes, bibliographies, “and the nuts-and-bolts of historical research.” Of necessity, it involves “a lot of nit-picky grading,” and, since the Department does not have graduate students, rarely do Ament’s readers have any background in the subject. Although she has offered to teach the course, she “does not believe it would be in the best interest of our students.”
The inability to get readers qualified to read Russian has been a hurdle in doing research. The area in which Ament is located simply doesn’t have many people with the requisite skill.
Because the work-study students Ament has “are not very good readers,” she employs them to assist with routine clerical work and scanning books. The scanning has been extremely helpful. “The computer can read the books,” she says. “It’s boring to listen to, but I can do it at home; I can keep the book for the next semester. It really minimizes the hassle of getting things read.” However, she has found that the quality of Russian that Is available, both for screen-readers and scanners, leave much to be desired.
Ament worries that “schools think that, if you’re blind, you get a Kurzweil or an Open Book and a screen-reading program, and you’re ready to go. You don’t need readers any more, and that’s just dead wrong, especially if you’re expected to do research. You’re not going to be reading entire books. You can’t use a scanner to find the one or two pages or a single paragraph that are useful for you.”
While Ament says, “The reality is that being blind makes you different and there are things you need to take into consideration that your colleagues don’t,” she has demonstrated the importance of drive, determination, and ingenuity in being successful.
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