Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement

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Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.


"Breaking Barriers" to Become an Author
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Peter AltschulAfter decades of listening to books, longtime Learning Ally member Peter Altschul has finally written one of his own. Blind since birth, Peter has donned many hats in life: from Ivy League student to professional composer, organizational developer, husband, and most recently, published author. When Peter started using audiobooks in high school, learning through listening did not come naturally: “It was a skill I needed to develop, especially when I went to college, because a good chunk of the school material wasn’t available in Braille.” Once he got the hang of reading effectively in this medium, audiobooks became an invaluable resource. For his undergraduate degree, Peter went to Princeton University and worked closely with Recording for the Blind—as Learning Ally was called back then—in New Jersey. “I took courses all over the map—psychology, economics, English literature, history—and a lot of the books I needed were available. I was pleasantly surprised,” he says. Back in the late ‘70s, the recordings were played on reels. He readily admits that the medium was a hassle but adds, “That was just what you had to do back then… and when cassettes came along it got easier.” You folks were indispensible and I’ll always appreciate the service you provided that let me get to where I am now.” During his senior year at Princeton, Peter applied for the RFB National Achievement Awards, after almost passing on the opportunity because he was so busy with graduate school applications. He’s glad he didn’t because he was selected to travel to Washington D.C. where he met Senator Bill Bradley, one of his childhood role models. He also attended a dinner at the National Science Foundation and met the Vice President, describing the entire NAA event as “a great experience.” After leaving Princeton, Peter went on to study music at the graduate level and did not require many audiobooks during this time. However, when he went on to Columbia University for a second master’s degree, this time in social work, he accessed many audio textbooks. He would also drop in on the New York City studio for last minute recordings of short articles he needed. “I could not have survived without articles being read for me by the NYC and Princeton studios back in the ‘90s—it was enormously helpful.”   After receiving his MSW, Peter began working in organization development, and explains, “A lot of the books everyone was talking about in the seminars and conferences I attended weren’t available anywhere else except through Learning Ally.” Once again, audiobooks became a regular resource for Peter: “Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I would more often than not have an audiobook in my backpack.” This past March, Peter's own book, “Breaking Barriers”  was released through iUniverse. The book focuses on the two years of his life after he got his fifth guide dog, Jules. Peter reflects on grieving over the unexpected deaths of his father and stepmother, and subsequently meeting his wife, Lisa (pictured below), and moving across the country. He also discusses his career path with particular focus on his work in organizational development.   With a chuckle, he describes one of his audiences as, “People who manage people who like dogs.” In addition to his organizational work, Peter has an accomplished career in music—he has a master’s degree in composition and is a published composer. His music has been performed in many venues, as far away as Brazil, and is performed in the largest church in Columbia, Missouri, where he currently lives.

“Breaking Barriers” had modest beginnings as a journal Peter kept while going through the process of getting his fifth guide dog. He shared entries with friends and colleagues and, after receiving a great amount of positive feedback and encouragement, decided to turn his story into a book. “Breaking Barriers” is being released in standard formats, but Peter is excited to say there are also plans to distribute it as an electronic Braille file. “If they do that, then other publishers might think about doing it for future authors who are blind,” he says. Peter hopes that both sighted and blind/visually impaired readers will enjoy and relate to his story.  Of course, Learning Ally's team is looking into rendering the book into accessible audio format to help make that happen. -Lauren Holstein  


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