Chris Downey - Part 2

Chris Downey speaking in the Ted Talks video 'Design with the Blind in Mind', source Internet Archive (full photo credit at the end) One of the many things Chris said to me in our conversations was "Making more of the positive overwhelms the negative." I think this tells us a great deal about Chris Downey and explains why he has been able to turn what could have been life altering in a negative way into an altered but positive life path.

In Part 1 of his story, Chris took us back to what most people he spoke with described as the "worst thing imaginable" – an architect losing is sight. However he survived the economic downturn, loss of job and loss of sight, and turned his 'disability' into a new and unique 'ability'.

Chris Downey speaks regularly about architecture and visual impairment. He also teaches accessibility and universal design at UC Berkeley and serves on the Board of Directors for the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. When Chris and his wife Rosa traveled to Italy in 2012, he sang with a church choir in Rome, Florence and Assisi. This is Part 2 of his story.

Chris's Story: In Conversation, continued

Q: You now read architectural diagrams tactually and get the tactile connection between fingers and brain. How did you learn to understand diagrams tactually and did it come to you easily?

A: There was some adjustment at first. Frankly, it continued for quite a while. I was so well versed in drawing and graphics I could work with them tactually quite quickly and was able to understand them. Learning to read braille helped a lot as well, but my previous experience made it happen very quickly. All of this came with some improvements in how I read drawings. With sight I had just looked at diagrams compositionally – it was very detached. When I read a plan with my fingers I'm imagining all of the space around me, where I could be at that moment. My brain is a lot more active during this process. It puts me inside that building – in my head. Not just 'what does it look like', but 'how does it all come together, the walls, the spaces, etc.' It's the physical connection that makes it more vivid and immediate.

Q: You were a mentor at an NFB youth camp at the University of Maryland. Hoby Wedler was a mentor in the program that same year. Even though he is considerably younger than you, he had had many more years of experience (his whole life in fact) living without sight. What did you learn from Hoby and what messages did you take away from that experience?

A: First, Hoby is a totally cool guy, a great friend. Even his work in chemistry – that he is pursuing this as a career is very cool. Hearing how he dealt with his teachers and others who discouraged him was phenomenal. He did not accept what others saw as a limitation. That was impressive. It was great to see the confidence he had. We have remained good friends. He also has great abilities in terms of O & M.

The Visuals Don't get in the Way

Chris Downey walking with his white can on California StreetQ: You've explained so well that if a city is designed with the blind in mind, it will be a better place all round, "a more inclusive, a more equitable, a more just city for all". This is the part of your message that I have taken to heart, that hit home with me. Do you carry this outlook with you beyond your work life?

A: Yes, it applies to life in general. It's how the world gets constructed, whether it's physical, economic, etc. Sometimes we struggle to create truly inclusive environments. I had had so little exposure to people with disabilities. When I lost my sight and went to CSUN, NFB or other events, all of a sudden there were all of these really interesting people and things that I was never exposed to before. I wonder about that – why it took my losing my sight to expand my horizons like that. It's important to have strong communities and strong connectivity between different groups, environments, and so on. Life is so much richer with all of these different pieces, with learning from each other and with a broader sense of each other … and leaving stereotypes behind. There is so much more room for a more equitable and just society.

Q: The world economy crashed in 2008, the year you lost your sight. You 'remade' yourself at an extremely difficult time. Did the state of the economy in the USA have an impact on the decisions you made and your business direction going forward?

A: Absolutely, yes it did. The company I was with when I lost my sight dealt only with cutting edge new technology for residential, new home construction. It was directly impacted by the economic downturn … work was drying up. Residential construction was the worst hit. I'd gone back to work within a month of losing my sight. I really tried to do what I had been doing before, but using different means. With the collapse of that sector the firm was in a downward spiral … I lost my job about 8 months later. I started January 2009 being unemployed & blind for less than a year. How does a blind architect look for work? It was a profound and scary moment – I had a family and a mortgage. I didn't have any great ideas of what I was going to do. I had to go out 'cold', but how could I go out into the marketplace and get a job while architectural companies were all cutting positions?

I got together with a business coach who was well connected with architecture and the construction industry, and I explained my situation. In 2 weeks he'd lined up an interview for me with a company working on a building for blind veterans. It would be a building for people who were new to sight loss. He thought once they got their heads around the idea that they would really 'get it'. They soon realized the tremendous and unique value in it.

Q: Chris, can you explain how and why you differentiate between "vision" and "sight"?

A: I always refer to my work in architecture followed by "without sight" or "not having sight". The difference is significant – especially for someone who is an architect. An architect without sight is one thing – I can deal with that. An architect without vision is a tragic case – if you catch the difference. I can finesse my way as an architect without sight but I might as well pack up the office if I were to be an architect that lost his vision. The distinction is both humorous and yet significant. I could add that my "vision" has improved since I lost my "sight". It also provides for a great foundation for what remains possible and positive despite the loss of sight.

"Architecture for the Blind"

Chris Downey in New York City, 2009Q: Do you view architecture and design differently now?

A: There is so much competition in the field but it turns out that my disability is a great advantage. I've been able to embrace the disability and accept what's there and the situation. I truly believe that I am a better architect now without sight. It's as if sight gets in the way of experiencing and conceiving architecture in a deeper more physical and multi-sensory way.

Q: What was your early 'vision' for your company Architecture for the Blind?

A: What it did for me was suggest a type of work that I hadn't thought about before, where I had a competitive advantage, brought value that no one else could. I had a different and relevant skill set. As an architect you are always aware of your 'vision' for the project but are also aware of the clients' and users' needs. It articulated a way of moving forward, a way of finding value I could discuss with potential clients.

Q: Where do you envision Architecture for the Blind going and what are the greatest challenges you face going forward?

A: I fear that it is limiting in terms of what I can do, it 'pigeon holes' me in a very narrow scope. As I become more comfortable, I can and am now broadening this, focusing on universal design. Part of the challenge and struggle is to address the needs of those who are blind but also the needs of everyone in their daily lives, and affecting a broader spectrum of people. At this point though I'm thinking about changing the name of the company. It identifies a good part of my focus, but it is limiting.

Photo Credits

Chris Downey speaking in the Ted Talks video 'Design with the Blind in Mind', is from the Internet Archive, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (License); the image has been slightly enlarged and sharpened.

The photograph of Chris Downey walking on California Street and final image taken in New York City are courtesy of Rosa Downey.

Additional Reading & Videos