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October 18, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Peter Altschul will never see the book he wrote though he might touch it, smell it or hear it read out loud. Altschul was born blind for reasons that have never been understood. The 55-year-old Columbian self-published his memoir, Breaking Barriers, in March.
Altschul, who will speak at the Columbia Public Library next week, kept a series of journals in 2005 while working with his then-guide dog, Jules. A lot of the content in the first three parts is based on these journals and Altschul’s experiences training and managing the six guide dogs he’s had in his lifetime.
Peter Altschul Speaks
WHERE: Columbia Public Library
WHEN: Oct. 23, 7 to 8:15 p.m.
He initially planned to teach readers about teamwork and workplace relationships based on what he learned while training his guide dogs. He compares the concept to coaches who write about managing their players. “But as often happens with artistic efforts, things have a way of spinning in a way that you didn’t anticipate,” he says.
Altschul discovered early in writing that his project was shaping into a reflection of his life story. It highlights his relationships with his guide dogs, his study and work in the music business, the deaths of his father and stepmother and his move to Columbia in 2006.
The fourth and final part of Breaking Barriers is about Altschul’s relationship with his wife. In 2004, when Altschul was 47, he met Lisa Wayland, who is legally blind, at a convention in Birmingham, Ala. In three years, Altschul moved to Columbia and married her.
His wife says she used to be bothered by the fact that her husband would never see her, but she isn’t anymore. He sees things differently, she says, with a person’s voice and touch.
He writes differently, too. He uses a BrailleNote, which is a special machine with six keys based on Braille dots that he can press in different combinations to make words. The display allows him to feel electronic pins at the bottom of the machine move up and down in correspondence with what he reads.
Currently, Altschul has many other pets, including three standard poodles and a python named Monty, but his relationships with his guide dogs have more meaning than your average man’s best friend. His bond with his current guide dog, a black lab named Heath, transcends that of his other pets. Altschul has to be comfortable putting his life in Heath’s paws. “You trust them with your safety,” he says. “If you’re crossing the street and a car cuts in front of you, they’re trained to get you out of the way.”
Altschul tells a story about when he was in Manhattan and was about to cross the street. He told Heidi, his guide dog at the time, to move forward, but she pulled back just as an ambulance cut through the intersection without its lights or sirens on. He didn’t know why she had stopped him until a fellow pedestrian explained what happened.
Although Altschul might rely on his guide dogs to lead him across the street, Breaking Barriers shows he needs no help finding his way into the literary world.