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The blind building for the blind: architect Chris Downey

Posted in Aging, Life & Love, and Relationships

downey_tonydiefell“Stepping onto the sidewalk, I then heard the sound of a steel chair slide across the concrete sidewalk in front of me. I know there’s a cafe on the corner, and they have chairs out in front, so I just adjusted to the left to get closer to the street. As I did, so slid the chair. I just figured I’d made a mistake, and went back to the right, and so slid the chair in perfect synchronicity. Now I was getting a little anxious. I went back to the left, and so slid the chair, blocking my path of travel. Now, I was officially freaking out. So I yelled, “Who the hell’s out there? What’s going on?” Just then, over my shout, I heard something else, a familiar rattle, and I quickly considered another possibility.  I reached out with my left hand, as my fingers brushed against something fuzzy, and I came across an ear, the ear of a dog.”

On St. Patrick’s Day of 2008, Chris Downey reported to the hospital for surgery to remove a brain tumour. The surgery was successful. Two days later, his sight started to fail. On the third day, it was gone. Downey was (and is still) an architect: a creative, mathematically minded profession – one that requires precision and dream in equal measure. One that also requires sight: “Immediately, I was struck by an incredible sense of fear, of confusion, of vulnerability, like anybody would.”

But his hospital stay gave Downey time to stop and think. He started to realize he had a lot to be grateful for: “I was alive. My son still had his dad. And besides, it’s not like I was the first person ever to lose their sight. I knew there had to be all sorts of systems and techniques and training to have to live a full and meaningful, active life without sight.”


He was discharged as man with a mission: to get the best training as quickly as he could and get on to rebuilding his life. “Within six months, I had returned to work. I even started riding a tandem bike with my old cycling buddies, and was commuting to work on my own, walking through town and taking the bus.”

His new use of public transport forced Downey to experience the cities where he lived (Oakland) and worked (San Francisco) at ground level. He realised his unsighted experience was “more multi-sensory than my sighted experience ever was”.

And found he now navigated using all of his senses, not relying on sight alone:
– sound: “the symphony of subtle sounds all around me in the city that you work with to understand where you are, how you need to move, and where you need to go.”
– touch: “through the grip of the cane, contrasting textures in the floor below, and over time you build a pattern of where you are and where you’re headed.”
– feel: “the sun warming one side of your face or the wind at your neck gives you clues about your alignment and your progression through a block and your movement through time and space.”
– smell: “districts have particular scents – you can even follow your nose to that new bakery that you’ve been looking for.”

Downey was: “surprised by the city’s propensity for kindness and care as opposed to indifference or worse. And then I started to realize that it seemed like the blind seemed to have a positive influence on the city itself. That was a little curious to me.”

In most cities, he says people tend do to stick to themselves. Lose your sight, though, and it’s a whole other story. Everybody watches you, and many want to help. Including the man who dragged him across a traffic intersection in a vice-like grip, all the time talking in Mandarin: “disability and blindness sort of cut across ethnic, social, racial, economic lines. Disability is an equal-opportunity provider. Everybody’s welcome and it’s a lot more honest and respectful of the fragility of life.”

Which got me wondering, if we believed we all were disabled, would we create generous paths of navigation in our dealings with others?  By Downey’s description, “more inclusive, more equitable, more just”.

If we had to start from scratch and design a city of life for ourselves and others to inhabit would we “have a rich, walkable network of sidewalks with a dense array of options and choices all available at the street level”?

Would we create communication channels that are a “robust, accessible, well-connected mass transit system that connects all parts of the city and the region all around.”

Would we ensure “there’ll be jobs, lots of jobs. Blind people want to work too. They want to earn a living.”

Downey is not only designing for people who have physically lost their sight. He is describing a way of living that ensures everyone equal space, balance and voice. That allows us to communicate widely and clearly. That offers all of it’s inhabitants something valuable to do.

Surely we don’t have to be blind to see that?

(Learn More about Chris Downey here. Watch his TED talk here. It is fascinating – just for the description of finding his way to work. All images in the public domain.)

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  1. This is really interesting.
    10+ years ago I had an accident and was in plaster from groin-to-toe for several months, therefore had to be pushed about in a wheelchair. I quickly learned how
    most of the world is designed for the use of the able bodied, and that it is true that if you are in a wheelchair people talk over your head to the person pushing the chaiir (‘does she take sugar?’) as though you were unable to speak for yourself.
    Then when I had 4 strokes in two months back in 2010 and my left side went awol and my vision was damaged, (plus I became dyspraxic), I had to use other senses to compensate – what Downey is doing is SO important, not only for the blind, but for people like me and indeed, for everyone. Thanks for posting this it really bucked me up.

    November 26, 2013
    • Fascinating to hear about people speaking over your head.I was with my parents at a hospital last year and the man who was doing the check-in/med aid info etc did not address them once, speaking instead to me. Even though I pointedly would refer the question to my father. And my mother was the patient.

      November 28, 2013
      • I don’t know why people do it – do they think that the infirm, elderly and disabled people are dumb mutes? But it happens all the time.

        November 28, 2013
  2. Great story 🙂
    Many years ago, I worked for the Royal National Institute as a Braillist for six years, transcribing books (specialising in languages, maths and science) into Braille. Looking at those tactile diagrams brings back many memories… we made those, too. I had some amazing colleagues, both blind an sighted. And even some four-legged ones 🙂

    November 25, 2013
    • Great job that must have been. I have always wanted to learn sign language … really must get my act together.

      November 28, 2013
      • When the topic comes up, that’s the first thing people usually ask me, whether I know sign language. My response s that it’s not all that successful with blind people, for some reason 😉

        November 28, 2013
        • Heh heh heh – I am sending you a sign from Cape Town.

          November 28, 2013
          • Am squinting real hard right now….

            November 28, 2013

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