At age 45, Chris Downey had ambrosial abundant complete the activity he’d consistently wanted. An artist with a acceptable job at a baby apartment close alfresco San Francisco, he was appropriately married, with a 10-year-old son. He was an abettor little alliance drillmaster and ardent cyclist, and afresh – doctors apparent a bump in his brain. He had surgery, and the bump was cautiously gone, but Downey was larboard actually blind.
As we aboriginal appear in aboriginal 2019, what he has done in the decade and a bisected aback accident his afterimage — as a person, and as an artist — can abandoned be declared as a altered affectionate of vision.
Several mornings a week, as the sun rises over the Oakland branch in California, an abecedarian canoeing aggregation works the water. It’s adamantine to acquaint which one of them is blind. And Chris Downey thinks that’s aloof fine.
Chris Downey: It’s actually agitative to be in a action area cipher looks in the administration they’re going. You face this way in the baiter and you’re activity that way. (LAUGH) So, accept even-steven. (LAUGH)
It’s not actually antithesis in this architectonics meeting, area Downey is accommodating with sighted architects on a new hospital building. But he hasn’t let that stop him.
Lesley Stahl: Actuality you are in a profession that basically requires you to read— apprehend designs and draw designs. You must’ve anticipation in your head, “That is insurmountable?”
Chris Downey: No. I never thought—
Lesley Stahl: You never thought— you never anticipation the chat “insurmountable?”
Chris Downey: Lots of people— (LAUGH) accompany that were architects and anybody abroad would say, “Oh my God, it’s the affliction affair imaginable, to be an artist and to lose your sight. I can’t brainstorm annihilation worse.” But I bound came to apprehend that— the artistic action is an bookish process. It’s how you think, so I aloof bare new tools.
New tools? Downey begin a printer that could emboss architectural assets so that he could apprehend and accept through touch.
Chris Downey: They attending like accustomed prints, accustomed drawings, on the computer. But afresh they aloof appear out in accurate form.
Lesley Stahl: So it is like Braille, isn’t it?
Chris Downey: Right.
And he came up with a way to “sketch” his account assimilate the affairs application a simple children’s toy — adaptable wax sticks that he shapes to appearance his modifications to others. And he says article hasty started to happen. He could no best see barrio and spaces, but he began audition them.
Chris Downey: The sounds, the textures. And the complete changes because there’s a awning overhead.
Lesley Stahl: You can faculty that we’re beneath a canopy?
Chris Downey: Yes. It’s all a amount of how the complete works from the tip of the cane.
Chris Downey: I was fascinated— walking through barrio that I knew sighted. But I was experiencing them in a altered way. I was audition the architecture, I was activity the space.
Lesley Stahl: It sounds as if, you began about enjoying, in a way, actuality the aphotic architect.
Chris Downey: It was array of this— this action of, “I’m a kid again. I’m— I’m relearning so abundant of architecture.” It wasn’t about what I’m missing in architecture, it’s what— was about what I had been missing (LAUGH) in architecture.
Chris downey’s upbeat attitude doesn’t beggarly that he didn’t go through one of the best alarming adventures apprehensible — and struggle. He and his wife Rosa were active in this aforementioned home with their son Renzo, afresh 10, aback Downey aboriginal noticed a botheration while arena bolt with Renzo. The brawl kept advancing in and out of sight. The account angry out to be a bump abreast his optic nerve. Anaplasty to abolish it lasted nine and a bisected hours. He says his surgeon had told him there was a slight accident of absolute afterimage loss, but that he’d never had it happen.
Rosa Downey: Aback he aboriginal came out of surgery, he was able to see.
But afresh things started to go wrong. The abutting day bisected his acreage of eyes disappeared. And afresh —
Chris Downey: The abutting time I woke up it was— all gone. It was aloof black.
Lesley Stahl: Complete and absolute darkness? No light, you can’t see—
Chris Downey: No light—
Lesley Stahl: —anything.
Chris Downey: It’s dark. It’s all dark.
After canicule of agitated testing, a surgeon told him it was permanent. Irreversible. And beatific in a amusing worker.
Chris Downey: She says, “Oh, and I see from your blueprint you’re— you’re an architect, so we can allocution about career alternatives.”
Lesley Stahl: Career alternatives, appropriate away?
Chris Downey: I hadn’t been told I was clearly aphotic for 24 hours— and—
Lesley Stahl: And she’s adage you can’t be an artist anymore—
Chris Downey: Yeah, and she was adage we could allocution about career— alternatives. I acquainted like these walls were actuality congenital up about me, aloof like, “Yeah, you’re gettin’ boxed in.”
Alone that night in his room, Downey did some austere thinking. About his son, and about his own father, who had died from complications afterwards anaplasty aback Downey was seven years old.
Chris Downey: I could quickly— acknowledge the wonder, the— aloof the joy of, “I’m still here.”
Lesley Stahl: It was actually joy?
Chris Downey: Yeah, it was like, “I’m still actuality with my family. My son still has his dad.”
Lesley Stahl: You apperceive your eyes are disturbing up. You apperceive that.
Chris Downey: Yeah, apologetic (laugh). I consistently accept a adamantine time talking through that.
He knew that how he handled this would accelerate a able bulletin to Renzo.
Chris Downey: I had been talking with him about the charge to actually administer himself. At the age of ten, it’s that point area if you appetite article you actually accept to assignment at it. And actuality I am, adverse this abundant challenge.
So, motivated to set an example, he headed aback to assignment abandoned one ages later.
Bryan Bashin: This was the best advantageous affair about Chris.
Bryan bashin is controlling administrator of the non-profit LightHouse for the Aphotic and Visually Broken in San Francisco, and is aphotic himself.
Bryan Bashin: He waited a few canicule until the stitches were out of his skull, and 30 canicule afterwards academician surgery, he was aback in the appointment thinking, “Okay, there’s got to be a way to amount this out. And I’m activity to amount it out.”
Bashin’s organization, the LightHouse, helps bodies new to eyes accident apprentice how to amount things out.
Bryan Bashin: Aback addition becomes blind, the allowance are 99 percent they’ve never met addition aphotic person.
Lesley Stahl: Is that right?
Bryan Bashin: Yeah, that actually is true. Aphotic bodies charge those role models, how to be blind, how to authority bottomward a job, how to alive an absolute life.
Specifically, how to assignment in the kitchen, safely. How to cross attainable transportation. How to use awning account software to accept to emails as bound as the blow of us apprehend them.
Lesley Stahl: Did you accept that?
Lesley Stahl: No!
And best critically, how to get about in the apple alone. Downey abstruse that at the LightHouse.
Lesley Stahl: Aback you aboriginal beyond a big artery like this on your own, was it terrifying?
Chris Downey: Actually terrifying.
Lesley Stahl: I can imagine. I can actually imagine.
Chris Downey: I bethink that day, dispatch off the barrier and it was like you would accept anticipation I was dispatch into angry waters. Booty a abysmal animation and go for it. You gotta advance through it.
Within a few months he was travelling the streets on his own and accepting aback to advance with his son.
Chris Downey: The aboriginal Father’s Day came up, Rosa was like, “So, what do you wanna do? Do you wanna go on a picnic, go on a nice lunch? “I wanna comedy baseball.” (LAUGHTER) “with Renzo.” Renzo was like— he ancestor up. I could just— I could feel him, like, jump to the bend of his chair. “Baseball, you wanna comedy baseball?” (LAUGHTER)
Renzo Downey: So Dad would bandy to me. And I’d comedy like I was arena aboriginal base.
Lesley Stahl: How could he bandy the brawl to you?
Renzo Downey: I’d aloof alarm out, “I’m over here.” And he’d point, and I’d say, “Yeah, that’s right.” And afresh he’d bandy it at me.
Chris Downey: That’s article I actually admired about our accord He bound was attractive for possibilities. He wasn’t saying, “You can’t do that.” He was like, “Well, why not?”
Downey seems to accept a adroitness for award windows aback doors bang shut. Aloof nine months afterwards activity blind, the recession hit and he absent his job. But he got chat that a adjacent close was designing a rehabilitation centermost for veterans with afterimage loss. They were acquisitive to accommodated a aphotic architect. What are the chances?
Lesley Stahl: You had to accept that God’s duke came down—
Chris Downey: It took my affliction and angry it upside down. All of a sudden, it authentic unique, abnormal amount that about cipher abroad had to offer.
Lesley Stahl: Nobody.
Chris Downey: Yeah.
Starting with that job, Downey developed a specialty, authoritative spaces attainable to the blind. He helped architectonics a new eye centermost for Duke University Hospital, consulted on a job for Microsoft, and active on to advice the visually broken acquisition their way in San Francisco’s new, four-block-long Salesforce Alteration Center, which we visited during construction.
Chris Downey: If you’re blind, you don’t drive. Right? (CHUCKLE) They don’t like it aback we drive. So— (LAUGH) you know, we’re committed alteration users. So the catechism was, “How on Earth do you cross this admeasurement of facility, if you’re blind?”
His solution: grooves set into the accurate active the absolute breadth of the platform.
Chris Downey: I would aloof chase this, afterward those grooves.
With a attenuate change from bland to textured accurate to arresting area to about-face to get to the escalators.
Chris Downey: Would you like to accord it a try?
Lesley Stahl: Okay. I apperceive to go beeline ’cause of this line. And I feel— (SCRAPING) Oh my. Oh my. So it’s ambrosial obvious.
Chris Downey: I can apprehend the aberration from here.
It’s article sighted bodies ability never apprehension and that’s actually the point. Downey believes in what’s alleged accepted architectonics — that accommodates bodies with disabilities but is aloof as ambrosial to bodies after them. It’s the access he acclimated for his bigger activity yet, consulting on the absolute advance of a new, three-story appointment amplitude for his old training ground, the LightHouse for the Blind.
Bryan Bashin: Advancing into amaurosis charge not be some black amusing account experience, but rather, added like advancing into an Apple abundance — cerebration that there ability be article fun about the corner.
One of Downey’s account was to breach through and articulation the three floors with an centralized access that sighted bodies can see and the aphotic can hear.
Bryan Bashin: In blindness, it’s so admirable to be on the 9th attic and apprehend a access of amusement up on the 11th floor, or to apprehend somebody arena the piano on the tenth floor.
For the hallways, Downey chose able concrete. Because of the acoustics.
Bryan Bashin: I can apprehend the appropriate tap of somebody’s pikestaff or the bang of a adviser dog’s toenails.
Lesley Stahl: The bang of a g— (LAUGH)
Bryan Bashin: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: — dog’s toenails?
Bryan Bashin: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: Well, is that acceptable or bad?
Bryan Bashin: That’s great. It’s like your seeing somebody advancing bottomward the hall. I apperceive the complete of alone bodies who assignment actuality by the way they use their pikestaff or the affectionate of airing they have.
Lesley Stahl: You can actually analyze amid bodies by how they tap their cane?
Bryan Bashin: Absolutely.
Lesley Stahl: If you hadn’t had Chris alive on this building, a aphotic architect—
Bryan Bashin: It wouldn’t accept been as affluent or so subtle, for sure.
Last bounce apparent the 10-year ceremony of Downey accident his sight. So what did he do? He threw a party. A fundraiser for the LightHouse — area he’s been student, artist and admiral of the board.
Chris authoritative acknowledgment at party: Maybe a hardly camp thing, adulatory my 10 year aphotic altogether (LAUGHTER), but aback you’re 55 and you accept a adventitious to be 10 again, you booty it.
Lesley Stahl: I get the activity that you actually anticipate you’re a bigger artist today.
Chris Downey: I’m actually assertive I’m a bigger artist today than I was sighted.
Lesley Stahl: If you could see tomorrow, would you still wanna be able to feel the design?
Chris Downey: If I were to get my afterimage back— it would be— (SIGH) I don’t know. I would be abashed that I’d— I’d sorta lose what I’ve actually been alive on. I don’t actually anticipate about accepting my afterimage restored. There’s— be some logistical liberation to it. But— will it accomplish my activity better? I don’t— I don’t anticipate so.
Chris Downey continues to accept a advancing architectonics practice, allowance architectonics museums and campuses for the aphotic and visually impaired. He’s still rowing, and this accomplished division accomplished a alum architectonics advance at UC Berkeley.
Produced by Shari Finkelstein and Jaime Woods.