October is Disability Employment Awareness month: Meet an Architect Who is Totally blind

Hands trace over a piece of paper with raised markings depicting the structure of a buildingOctober is Disability Employment Awareness month, and last weekend’s feature on 60 Minutes about an architect who says losing his sight made him better at his job is a perfect example of how resourceful people with disabilities are at work.

Chris Downey had been a working architect in San Francisco for years before 2008, when surgery to treat a brain tumor left him blind at the age of 45. He said he was so familiar with the city that within six months he was back at work and using a white cane to commute to the office on his own. The 60 Minutes story didn’t answer all my questions about how he works as an architect without being able to see anymore, but I did find an interview at The Architect’s Newspaper where Downey explains how he uses wax tools called wikki stix to sketch embossed plans. Maybe they showed that in the 60 Minutes feature without describing it out loud? Anyway, in that same Architect’s Newspaper interview, Downey described one of the first projects he worked on after losing his sight: a Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto.

“The client and the team were becoming aware that they really didn’t understand how space and architecture would be experienced and managed by users who would not see the building,” he said. “When I showed up as a newly blinded architect with 20 years of experience, there seemed an opportunity to bridge that gap.” The fact that he was a rookie at being blind was a bonus. He said, “I was not that far removed from the experience of the veterans who were dealing with their new vision loss.”

Eight short years later, Downey has his own business consulting on design for people who are blind and visually impaired. In addition to the VA project in Pal Alto, he has worked on renovations of housing for people who are blind in New York City and consulted on the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco. He teaches periodically for the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Architecture, serves on the California Commission on Disability Access and chairs the Board of Directors for the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. He also speaks internationally about disability and design.

I did hear the famous architect speak once — virtually. Chris Downey’s TED Talk includes one part where he says urban planners who think of people who are blind as prototypical city dwellers will come up with design elements that make life better for everyone, whether sighted or not:

  • a rich walkable array of predictable sidewalks
  • no cars
  • many options and choices at the street level
  • a robust, accessible, well-connected transit system

I lost my sight in 1985. Since then, my husband Mike and I have lived in a college town (Urbana, IL), a Chicago suburb (Geneva, IL), an ocean town (Nags Head, NC), and a big city (Chicago). We have loved each place for different reasons, and for me, our 15-plus years in Chicago have rewarded me with fantastic job opportunities (moderating this blog, leading memoir-writing classes for older adults, and giving presentations at schools and civic events) and an unequaled sense of independence. I have to agree with Chris Downey when he says keeping accessibility in mind when designing urban architecture really can make things better…for everyone.


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