'Breaking Barriers' author writes how to work, love while blind

Monday, October 22, 2012 | 7:29 p.m. CDT; updated 11:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Peter Altschul shares a moment with his guide dog, Heath, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever Oct. 8 outside of his house. Heath is Altschul's sixth guide dog and has been guiding him since August of this year. Altschul's book contains stories about his experiences with his previous guide dog, Jules, also a black Labrador retriever.

*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age for Peter Altschul.

COLUMBIA — As a bachelor spending time between New York City and Washington, D.C., Peter Altschul had become familiar with the noise of the city.

For more information

Peter Altschul will be talking about his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Columbia Public Library Friends Room.

Copies of his book are available at the library and for purchase. To learn more about the author and his work, go to his author's page or his personal blog.

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After meeting Lisa Wayland in 2004, everything changed. She lived in Columbia, and they spent a year cultivating a long-distance relationship. In 2006, she persuaded him to leave the East Coast. 

He wasn't the only one who made the transition. His guide dog, Jules, came, too.

Altschul, 55*, was born blind and has written a memoir about his childhood, his unusual career path and falling in love.

"Breaking Barriers: Working and Loving While Blind" was published in March by iUniverse in Bloomington, Ind.

The book also touches on building trust with his guide dogs, the death of his father and stepmother and his passion for music.

He will moderate a discussion of the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Columbia Public Library.

Growing up with music

He grew up in a working-class town in New York with a mother who was determined for him to have a conventional childhood.

Altschul began to develop an interest in music with piano lessons at age 4 but eventually found percussion to be more alluring. 

"The drums are just so much fun to play," he said. "You're sort of in charge, but you're not."

Drumming led to a place in his high school marching band. His mother and his band teacher figured out how he could navigate the field while marching and playing with the rest of the ensemble.

He continued to play with a marching band when he studied music at Princeton University. Although he majored in music theory, it was composition that gave him the most satisfaction.

"I really like the creativity of composing music," he said. "It's almost like a puzzle. You get this creative spark, and you have to make it work based on whatever music criteria you have."

After graduation, he spent two years trying to break into the music business before deciding to pursue a career in organizational development.

Helping others find common ground

Altschul graduated from the Columbia University School of Social Work in 1992, earning a master's degree in social work with a specialty in workplace issues.

"I was really fascinated by the way groups and organizations function and how they can be made to function better," he said.

For almost 20 years, he worked with various organizations in development and workplace management. At one point, he held workshops to help New York City taxi drivers provide better customer service to their passengers.

"New York City taxi drivers come from all over the universe," he said. "So I got to work with people of all different races and ethnicities. I'm delighted I got to do it."

In another project, he worked simultaneously with anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights organizations to reach common ground. 

"The whole point of this process was not for people to to change their opinions," he said. "We wanted them to start listening to each other, so they understood where each other was coming from."

Instead of focusing on the differences, Altschul said he tried to highlight their common views on sex education in schools and teaching students about the responsibilities of young parenthood.

Love hit him unexpectedly

His work kept him constantly moving around the country, traveling to workshops and conventions, meeting with organizations and building a career.

"I ran workshops and retreats and did a lot of coaching," he said. "And then I fell in love."

Altschul has Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon" to thank for his first encounter with his wife. She was in the audience one night at a convention when he stepped on stage and sang the ballad during a variety show.

A year later at a convention in Las Vegas, the two reunited and began a friendship that would develop into something more. Five years ago, they married.

"He's a kind and gracious and very thoughtful person," Lisa Wayland Altschul said. "We've just had a great relationship."

Writing a book was an afterthought

When Altschul started to keep electronic journal entries about his transition from the East Coast to Columbia, he didn't intend to turn it into a book.

When friends and colleagues suggested one, Altschul was quick to decline. But after the insistence of his wife and subsequent enrollment in a nonfiction creative writing class, he decided to give it a try.

"My initial plan was to write a book about what you could learn from a guide dog user and the school that trains them to be a better leader," he said.

In the end, he combined personal reflections about his past with the methods he uses to help others compromise over difficult issues.

"The extent to which you can focus on people's strengths, the better chance you're going to have of doing good work," he said. "If you can identify those skills and strengths, it's easier to help people get better in things they don't do so well."

By doing this, he said, they have confidence in their skills and are willing to take some risks.

The philosophy extends beyond the workplace. He said he hopes others will remember it when encountering people different from themselves, particularly those with disabilities.

"I really enjoy his insight," said family friend Karen Chandler. "He's just a really funny, smart and interesting guy."

Altschul said he is open to the idea of writing another book, possibly with his wife. Until then, he continues to write about his work and experiences on his blog.

Music continues to play a part in his life

He has also not lost his love of music.

When he moved to Columbia, Altschul found a music community by joining the Columbia Chorale. 

Al Barrier, another member of the Chorale, said he admires Altschul's background and experience as a musician.

"I was impressed to know about his musical background and how he's been able to accomplish all that," Barrier said. "He's one of the better musicians I know. It's just phenomenal to be able to get that onto the page."

But beyond that, he finds Altschul's presence a great addition to the chorale community.

"He's a lot of fun and has a lot of laughter," Barrier said. "He has a big heart, and he cares a lot about people." 

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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