Breaking Barriers: Working and Loving While Blind

Breaking Barriers: Working and Loving While Blind

by Peter Altschul MS


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Breaking Barriers: Working and Loving While Blind by Peter Altschul MS

For some unknown reason, Peter Altschul was born totally blind. He grew up in a working-class town where, with the help of his persistent mother, he broke through barrier after barrier, determined to live a full life.

After attending a private school that initially turned him away-simply because he was blind-Peter details how he discovered his gift for music, eventually playing percussion in the orchestra, marching band, and jazz ensemble at Princeton University. But it was only after Peter graduated from college that it became evident he would need a guide dog. Heidi, a Weimaraner with a large repertoire of barks, howls, and grunts, would assist Peter for the next eight years through the halls of New England Conservatory, where he eventually obtained a master's degree in music composition. Peter relays how he blazed a unique professional trail while simultaneously overcoming obstacles; managed his uneasy relationship with music; and embraced his unexpected entrance into an unfamiliar and romantic world. He also provides an unforgettable glimpse into the wonderful ways his five guide dogs supported him on his journey from urban bachelorhood to the light of love.

Breaking Barriers shares a compelling account of one man's journey through life as he and each of his specially trained dogs learned to trust each other, ultimately melding into a smooth working team that tackled the world-together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469731117
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/06/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)

Read an Excerpt

Breaking Barriers

Working and Loving While Blind
By Peter Altschul

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Peter Altschul, MS
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4697-3111-7

Chapter One

Preparing for the New Dog

* * *

March 12, 2005

At LaGuardia Airport, I held onto the left elbow of an airport employee with my suitcase in my right hand and my backpack on my back. As he guided me toward the security area, an unfamiliar voice identified herself as Jolene from Guiding Eyes. "Hi!" I called back. As we drew even with her, I thanked the airport employee for his help and transferred my grip to Jolene's elbow without breaking stride. She led me out of the bustling, warm dryness of the airport to the cold, damp pavement of the sidewalk. Cars and buses sloshed past us as we approached the van in which two students and I would be driven to the school. I handed her my suitcase, which she stowed in the back as I climbed in. She introduced me to a woman in the van named Pam, rolled the door shut, and went back into the terminal.

Pam told me that she was an instructor's assistant working in the kennel taking care of dogs-in-training. She had recently been assigned to assist the instructors who would be teaching us how to work with our new dogs. Over time, she would develop the needed skills to work with both dogs and people with visual impairments.

We soon discovered that we knew people in common because we both had worked for small NGOs that tried to tackle the world's biggest conflicts. I asked what had prompted the career change.

"I've always loved dogs, and I got tired of the frantic pace," she said as Jolene assisted the second student into the van.

After the doors rolled shut, Pam asked me about my work. I told her about a reverse mentoring program I was running for the American branch of a large London-based corporation as part of its diversity initiative. I explained that this program "flipped" the usual mentoring relationship; instead of a more senior person mentoring a more junior person, the more junior person took on the mentoring role.

"Fascinating. How did you get the idea?"

I explained that I had been looking for a low-cost way to assist the organization's leadership team in understanding the barriers that made it more difficult for people other than white men to get ahead, and how I had overheard someone at a conference describing a bank's effort to start a program where people from diverse backgrounds mentored senior managers about diversity and culture change. "The simplicity and uniqueness of the idea got my attention," I told her.

"How's it going?" she asked as I heard Jolene approach the van with the third student.

"Very well." The third student boarded, and the door rolled shut. "I'm supposed to write a report summarizing its successes while I'm at the school."

"Welcome to Guiding Eyes," Jolene called. She started the van. "We should be there in about an hour."

As the van eased into traffic, Pam asked if I would be writing the report using one of the computers that the school has available for its students. "You know that we installed both of those software programs with the weird names that convert what's on the screen into speech?"

I laughed. "You mean JAWS and Window-eyes?"

"Yes. I have a lot to learn."

I told Pam that while I used JAWS (Job Access with Speech) to listen to the text on the screen, I would write my report using my Braille Lite. I took it out of my backpack and showed her how text is input using the six braille keys instead of the QWRTY keyboard. I explained that material is input as ASCII text and can be converted to a Microsoft Word or WordPerfect file on any personal computer. I demonstrated how I could read text by running my fingers along the braille display at the front of the machine or listen to it using its robotic-sounding "voice."

After a period of sparse chitchat, I eased into a conversation with a middle-aged woman from North Carolina who had recently ended her relationship with an abusive husband. She described how many of her friends had discouraged her from leaving. "He's such a nice man," they had said, "and how will you be able to live without him? You're blind."

"I'm glad you left him," I told her.

She said that she was fine living alone but that she was having trouble with her VR counselor.

I cringed. "What's the problem?"

"She won't return my calls. She's very condescending and won't help me get the training I need to get a job."

"Sounds familiar." I sighed and began describing the strategy I used when my VR counselor wouldn't return my calls.

"I had just received my master's in music," I explained, "and I was sharing a small studio apartment in Manhattan with my first guide dog, a Weimaraner named Heidi. I was trying to break into the music business."

"Doing what?" someone asked.

"I wanted to write music jingles for commercials," I said. "I also enjoyed writing and producing pop tunes."

"Were you successful?"

"Not really. Heidi and I spent two years knocking on doors, and while I did get one tune published and made some money recording tracks for other songwriters, I concluded that I wasn't cut out for the business. So I took the first job I could get: doing customer service work for a large federal government agency.

"Anyway," I continued, "twice a year I would receive a letter in print from my counselor threatening to close my case if I didn't contact her immediately. First I had to find someone sighted to read the letter. Then I would call and ask to speak with my counselor, and the receptionist always told me that she wasn't available. I would politely ask that my counselor call me back.

"Of course she would never return my call," I said as the passengers snickered, "and I would call back the receptionist two or three days later and threaten to sue or to call the media or to organize a demonstration or anything else I could think of short of physical violence, and my counselor always called me back within an hour."

"That's rude!" Jolene's voice cut through our laughter.

"That's what my counselor said. She also accused me of threatening the receptionist."

"What did you say?" asked another passenger, who sounded like an elderly African American gentleman.

"The truth—that the only way she would return my calls was if I threatened to take action."

"I don't think I could get away with that."

"Probably not," I muttered. I feared voicing my belief that I had probably gotten away with my threats in part because I was white and a recent graduate from two elite universities. If he'd tried something like that, his VR counselor might have called the cops.

"I still say you were rude!" Jolene repeated.

"Of course I was rude. And the sad thing is that many other clients of the VR system use similar tactics to get results from their counselors. Then they try the same approach at work and wonder why they don't get along with their bosses."

"We're here," Jolene announced several minutes later as she turned the van into the driveway. As we got out, she carried our luggage inside while assisting us into the lobby. During the next ten minutes, instructors showed each of us how to walk to our rooms and oriented us to the location of the beds, Internet connections, desks, chairs, radios/CD players, bathrooms, and the door leading to the area where our new dogs would go to the bathroom. They used a combination of audible and tactile techniques. "Peter," one of the instructors said, "your room is the third on the right." He tapped several times on the door frame and put my right hand on the room number in braille and large print about five feet off the ground near each door handle. Instructors were also available to assist us in learning how to get to the dining room and other locations throughout the building. This was important because guide dogs are trained to assist their handlers in walking safely from one place to another. They are not responsible for deciding on which route to take. We must know how to get to where we want to go and then communicate it to our dogs using verbal commands and hand gestures.

After lunch, unpacking, and some quiet time, I attended our first formal meeting in the Peter Campbell Lounge where I had spent many hours over the years listening to lectures, talking with my fellow students, and playing the piano. Eileen and Erik, the two instructors, opened the meeting by introducing themselves and then encouraged us to become acquainted. The twelve of us lived throughout the United States and Canada. Our ages ranged from the early twenties to the late seventies. The level of visual acuity ranged from total blindness to the ability to read materials in large print and to travel during daylight hours without guide dog or cane. Our community also included Pam, the instructor's assistant, and Melinda, the class supervisor.

Erik and Eileen next reviewed the guidelines that would govern the life of our small community.

"Talk to each other so people know where you are," Eileen suggested, "especially when you get your dogs in a couple of days."

"And please be extra careful when you are carrying hot coffee," Erik added, "because we don't want any dog or person burned. If you spill something, either clean it up or let us know; the floors can get very slippery."

"Try to help each other out," Eileen continued. "If someone says they are looking for a chair and there is one next to you, direct them to it."

As the instructors encouraged us not to drink too much alcohol; to show up on time for meals, meetings, and trips; not to smoke in the building; to treat each other respectfully; and to keep our dogs out of the way so they would not be stepped on, I thought about my first stay at Guiding Eyes twenty-six years earlier. It was the first time I had been around adults who were blind. I was a cocky recent college graduate who had played percussion in the marching band, orchestra, and jazz ensemble. I had recently visited Washington, DC, courtesy of Recording for the Blind (now Learning Ally) who had selected two other blind college seniors and me for a national award honoring academic excellence. While there, I had visited then-Senator Bill Bradley, a Princeton alumnus; attended a banquet at the National Science Foundation to honor us student scholars; and shaken the hand of then-Vice President Walter Mondale. I had just learned that the Princeton Chapel Choir would be performing a mass that I had written during my senior year.

I also believed that rules were for wimps, having spent most of my life finding ways to work around them. I started fighting my own battles one month into my high school experience.

"What do you mean you won't allow me to lift weights?" I had shouted at the well-respected football coach. This outburst had resulted in horrified gasps from bystanders and the chance to lift weights.

During my freshman year at Princeton, the conductor of the wind ensemble refused to allow me into the group because I couldn't follow his hand signals. I thought I would lose this battle despite my vehement objections; after all, I had been in my high school's concert band for three years and successfully auditioned for the All-County Band during my senior year. But I went to a wind ensemble concert several months later and noticed that the sighted percussionists the conductor had imported from another college failed to follow his lead.

"Did you notice how those percussionists—"

"We know," several student band officers chimed in exasperated unison.

A year later, the conductor was gone, and his replacement welcomed me into the group.

So I had ignored one of the Guiding Eyes rules by not announcing my presence as I walked through the building; after all, I didn't tell sighted people where I was, so why tell blind people? My fellow students would bump into me and then want to know why I hadn't let them know where I was so they could get out of my way. I would offer a half-hearted "sorry" and move on. When enough people complained about my rudeness, I changed my approach.

"I'm here! Coming through!" I would trumpet as I approached a doorway.

"You make my ears hurt," students complained.

I knew I was announcing my presence in a loud voice to rebel against the rules. That was just how I was at the time. But the passage of years can mellow a man, and as I listened to the instructors give us our marching orders, I relaxed. I knew the rules, and they made sense.

"And one more thing," Eileen said, "when you get your dogs, please focus on looking after your own dog."

"And don't judge others because they don't take care of their dog the same way that you do," Erik added.

"We know that this is a stressful experience, and we want to make your stay as pleasant as possible," Eileen said, "so please don't hesitate to call us if you need help. Any questions? No? Then it's time for dinner."

As the dinner clatter picked up, I thought about how each of us had left family, friends, and familiar surroundings to live at Guiding Eyes with eleven other students with visual impairments from different backgrounds. While a few students stay for twelve days, others stay for eighteen days or even for nearly a month. The length of stay depends upon the experience of the student and the success of the match between student and dog. "How many other people would take this leap of faith?" I asked myself as I began cutting up my chicken breast.

After dinner, we attended our first lecture in which Erik talked about the "Slip Collar," a piece of chain with a metal ring at each end; the leather leash; and the harness, which consists of the frame into which the dog's body fits and a rigid handle that each of us holds onto and through which each of us learns to gauge our dog's moves through subtle vibrations.

I drank a beer with two Vietnam vets after the lecture in the Coffee Room, an uncarpeted space containing several round tables and plastic chairs, along with a coffee machine, water cooler, microwave oven, refrigerator, and bowls filled with fruit and other snacks. I felt out of place as they reminisced about their wartime experiences and irritated as they heaped praise on President George W. Bush for sending troops to Iraq "to kill all those fucking Arab terrorists." Not wishing to get into a political argument, I said a curt "good night" and trudged to my room feeling alone and a little annoyed. I tuned the radio to WCBS News Radio 88, a station that had provided useful information and background noise for more than twenty-five years as I completed homework assignments and household chores. With the radio playing softly, I crawled into bed and quickly fell asleep.

"Good morning; it's 6:30 a.m.," Erik's voice intoned through the PA system. "Breakfast will be at seven."

As I got ready, I wished that the day could be skipped so that I could meet my new dog. While the reasons for the delay made sense, I wasn't looking forward to taking part in activities I had gone through several times already.

"Good morning, beautiful people!" Jose called in a lilting Spanish accent as we started eating our breakfasts. He had greeted classes with this phrase for the past thirty years, first as chief chef and later as the director of housekeeping. During my first stay at Guiding Eyes, he had encouraged me to treat my fellow students more kindly and had found the right thing to say when I became irritated with those rules made for wimps.

"Good morning, Jose," we responded with varied degrees of alertness.

As Jose explained how things would work in the dining room, it occurred to me how much more relaxed and engaged I had suddenly become. It's remarkable what a cheerful word from an influential person in a well-respected organization can do.

I was neither relaxed nor engaged during my first week at my first job where my fellow employees and I had been confined to a large airless room. We had completed a mind-numbing amount of paperwork. We had listened to endless presentations about the glories of the organization from faceless bureaucrats who we never heard from again. We spent way too much time sitting around doing nothing. During the next six weeks, we received training from instructors who we would never talk to again. We would soon find out that the information we learned was only slightly helpful as we spent most of our time listening to customer questions, filling out the proper form, and explaining that we would forward the information to our research unit who would get back to them within three to six weeks.

I was slightly more engaged during the early stages of my second job. At the stodgy bank on Wall Street, I joined a small group of fellow employees in a stuffy carpeted room where we filled out forms and listened to faceless bureaucrats rhapsodize about the bank's glorious history. During the next month, our supervisors taught us the information we would need to address the concerns of the customers we would be speaking with over the phone. This training was more useful because we had access to much of the information we would need to help those who called us.


Excerpted from Breaking Barriers by Peter Altschul Copyright © 2012 by Peter Altschul, MS. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: Pet Dogs and Working Dogs....................1
Chapter One: Preparing for the New Dog....................15
Chapter Two: The New Dog....................28
Chapter Three: Play Day....................39
Chapter Four: Back to Work....................50
Chapter Five: Preparing to Leave....................59
Chapter Six: Home Alone with Jules....................77
Chapter Seven: Patterning....................85
Chapter Eight: Onstage....................94
Chapter Nine: Making Connections....................107
Chapter Ten: A Dunbar Factor....................125
Chapter Eleven: The Trip to Trenton....................138
Chapter Twelve: The Eulogy....................149
Chapter Thirteen: What Happens in Vegas....................163
Chapter Fourteen: The Blessings....................176
Chapter Fifteen: Control....................187
Chapter Sixteen: Loosening Ties....................196
Chapter Seventeen: Three Ceremonies....................205
Epilogue: Family Man....................223

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Breaking Barriers: Working and Loving While Blind 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You might just look at this book and be like "oh my god this seems soo boring",but it is a heart warming story about how ven in tough times you can still get through with a little bit of hope-Rain