Architect goes blind, says he's actually gotten better at his job

Submitted by anoopa on Mon, 01/14/2019 - 10:35

CBS News | 60 Minutes | January 13, 2019

A social worker tried to tell him about "career alternatives" after he lost his sight, but Chris Downey wasn't about to stop being an architect.

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.

What he has done in the 10 years since losing his sight, as a person, and as an architect, can only be described as a different kind of vision.

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. (LAUGH) So, okay even-steven. (LAUGH)

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?"

Chris Downey: No. I never thought—

Lesley Stahl: You never thought— you never thought the word "insurmountable?"

Chris Downey: Lots of people— (LAUGH) 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.

Chris Downey: They look like normal prints, normal drawings, on the computer. But then they just come out in tactile form.

Lesley Stahl: So it is like Braille, isn't it?

Chris Downey: Right.

Read the full interview here