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differentvisionmain

Photo: CBS News
Blind architect Chris Downey explains to CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl on
60 Minutes how his disability has made him a better architect.

Talk about making lemonade if life hands you lemons! This story about a man who suffered a devastating loss and eventually came out ahead of the game is inspiring.

Lesley Stahl reported on Chris Downey’s saga for 60 Minutes.

“Several mornings a week, as the sun rises over the Oakland estuary in California, an amateur rowing team works the water. It’s hard to tell which one of them is blind. And Chris Downey thinks that’s just fine.

“CHRIS DOWNEY: It’s really exciting to be in a sport where nobody looks in the direction they’re going. You face this way in the boat and you’re going that way. So, okay even-steven.

“It’s not exactly even-steven in this design meeting, where Downey is collaborating with sighted architects on a new hospital building. But he hasn’t let that stop him.

“LESLEY STAHL: Here you are in a profession that basically requires you to read— read designs and draw designs. You must’ve thought in your head, ‘That is insurmountable?’ …

“DOWNEY: Friends that were architects and anybody else would say, ‘Oh my God, it’s the worst thing imaginable, to be an architect and to lose your sight. I can’t imagine anything worse.’ But I quickly came to realize that — the creative process is an intellectual process. It’s how you think, so I just needed new tools.

“New tools? Downey found a printer that could emboss architectural drawings so that he could read and understand through touch. …

“At age 45, Chris Downey had pretty much constructed the life he’d always wanted. An architect with a good job at a small housing firm outside San Francisco, he was happily married, with a 10-year-old son. He was an assistant little league coach and avid cyclist. And then — doctors discovered a tumor in his brain. He had surgery, and the tumor was safely gone, but Downey was left completely blind. As we first reported in 2019, what he has done in the decade since losing his sight, as a person and as an architect, can only be described as a different kind of vision.

“And he came up with a way to ‘sketch’ his ideas onto the plans using a simple children’s toy — malleable wax sticks that he shapes to show his modifications to others. And he says something surprising started to happen. He could no longer see buildings and spaces, but he began hearing them. …

“DOWNEY: I was fascinated — walking through buildings that I knew sighted. But I was experiencing them in a different way. I was hearing the architecture, I was feeling the space. … It was sort of this — this excitement of, ‘I’m a kid again. I’m— I’m relearning so much of architecture.’

It wasn’t about what I’m missing in architecture, it’s what— was about what I had been missing in architecture.

“Chris Downey’s upbeat attitude doesn’t mean that he didn’t go through one of the most frightening experiences imaginable — and struggle. He and his wife Rosa were living in this same home with their son Renzo, then 10, when Downey first noticed a problem while playing catch with Renzo. The ball kept coming in and out of sight. The cause turned out to be a tumor near his optic nerve. Surgery to remove it lasted nine and a half hours. He says his surgeon had told him there was a slight risk of total sight loss, but that he’d never had it happen. … The next day half his field of vision disappeared. And then —

“DOWNEY: The next time I woke up it was — all gone. It was just black. …

“After days of frantic testing, a surgeon told him it was permanent. Irreversible. And sent in a social worker.

“DOWNEY: She says, ‘Oh, and I see from your chart you’re’— you’re an architect, so we can talk about career alternatives.’ …

“Alone that night in his room, Downey did some serious thinking. About his son, and about his own father, who had died from complications after surgery when Downey was seven years old.

“DOWNEY: I could quickly — appreciate the wonder, the — just the joy of, ‘I’m still here.’ …

“He knew that how he handled this would send a strong message to Renzo. … Motivated to set an example, he headed back to work only one month later.

“Just nine months after going blind, the recession hit and he lost his job. But he got word that a nearby firm was designing a rehabilitation center for veterans with sight loss. They were eager to meet a blind architect.  …

“DOWNEY: It took my disability and turned it upside down. All of a sudden, it defined unique, unusual value that virtually nobody else had to offer. …

“Starting with that job, Downey developed a specialty, making spaces accessible to the blind. He helped design a new eye center at Duke University Hospital, consulted on a job for Microsoft, and signed on to help the visually impaired find their way in San Francisco’s new, and much-delayed, four-block long Transbay Transit Center, which we visited during construction. …

“DOWNEY: I’m absolutely convinced I’m a better architect today than I was sighted.

“STAHL: If you could see tomorrow, would you still wanna be able to feel the design? …

“DOWNEY: I don’t know. I would be afraid that I’d — I’d sorta lose what I’ve really been working on.” More.

Hat tip: Kristina.

 

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