[Nfbc-info] Blind Oakland Archetect

Mary Willows mwillows at sbcglobal.net
Wed May 20 06:21:23 UTC 2009

That's amazing.  That's the second blind arcetecht I have heard of in two 
weeks.  I'd like to get Chris and Steve Gray (San Francisco) together. 
Bryan, can you help?

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Bryan Bashin" <bashin at calweb.com>
To: "NFBC Info at NFBNet" <nfbc-info at nfbnet.org>
Sent: Monday, May 04, 2009 9:31 PM
Subject: [Nfbc-info] Blind Oakland Archetect

> Folks,
> I thought many of you might be interested to learn about the progress of 
> Chris Downey, a new blind guy, and a student of LisaMaria martinez, among 
> others.  Chris will be mentoring at this summer's NFB Youth Slam.
> Bryan
> Sudden sight loss drives architect to aid blind
> Sam Whiting, Chronicle Staff Writer
> Saturday, May 2, 2009
> Fifteen months ago Chris Downey was just another green architect, based in 
> Oakland.
> Now he has an expertise that separates him from every other architect in 
> the Bay
> Area and all 20,000 attendees at this week's American Institute of 
> Architects' National
> Convention in San Francisco.
> Images
> Architect Chris Downey reads drawings that have raised fi...
> Downey walks through his office with the aid of his cane.
>  View Larger Images
> Downey, 46, is a blind architect dedicated to planning buildings for blind 
> people,
> a niche brought about by his sudden loss of sight after surgery.
> "It is actually pretty exciting," says Downey, as he sits in a drafting 
> room, like
> everybody else at SmithGroup Inc. in the Financial District. Then he rises 
> to 6 feet
> 4, grabs a white cane with one hand and reaches out with the other, 
> grasping for
> something to shake. "For someone who likes problem solving, this is quite 
> a challenge,"
> says Downey, who has been working up floor plans in braille to submit to 
> blind clients
> overseeing the design of a new blind rehab center at the Veterans Affairs 
> center
> in Palo Alto.
> "It's a question of how do you design an environment for people that 
> aren't going
> to see it?" Right. But there is one question before that. As he puts it, 
> "Blind architect.
> What a preposterous idea. How does that work?"
> The answer starts with a benign tumor that had slowly encircled the 
> intersection
> of optic nerves. The tumor began to push the nerves out of position, and 
> that's when
> Downey couldn't follow the flight of a baseball as he played catch with 
> his son,
> Renzo, now 11, at home in Piedmont. Next Downey was hitting stuff in the 
> road, during
> the 100 miles he'd do weekly on his bicycle. Still, he could get his work 
> done with
> the aid of glasses. His eyeballs looked fine, but an MRI revealed a 
> non-malignant
> golf-ball-size growth causing the blind spots.
> "If it weren't for playing baseball with my son and riding my bike, who 
> knows when
> I would have figured it out," he says.
> Because of the tumor's proximity to the optic nerve, radiation treatment 
> to shrink
> it was not an option. He had surgery on St. Patrick's Day 2008 to try to 
> correct
> his vision, even though he was aware that it was risky and might not work.
> Downey's father, a physician, had died of complications from brain surgery 
> at 36,
> so waking up after the procedure at all made Downey feel "pretty darn 
> lucky." Luckier
> still that he had blurry vision, as expected. "It was amazing," he 
> recalls. "It was
> a 9 1/2-hour procedure, and the next day I was up walking around."
> When he awoke on the second day, his field of vision had been cut in half 
> horizontally,
> as if the water were at eye level in a swimming pool. By the third day 
> he'd lost
> vision in the top half, too. It varied from dark to light for five days, 
> then it
> faded to black.
> "I lost my sight," says Downey, who knew going in that this was a risk. 
> "But I came
> out pretty darn healthy, with the exception of the sight."
> He accepted blindness right away. What he could not accept was the advice 
> of a social
> worker who came in and immediately started discussing a career change. 
> Every step
> he had taken since junior high in Raleigh, N.C., had been toward becoming 
> an architect.
> He had seven years of schooling into it, topped by a master's degree from 
> UC Berkeley
> in 1992. Since then, he had designed aquariums, libraries, theaters, 
> stores and homes.
> He tried returning to the job he'd started a few months before he became 
> ill, but
> was laid off before Christmas. He searched the Internet, and found one 
> blind architect
> in Lisbon, Portugal, and a guy who works as a forensic architect, 
> investigating failures
> in buildings. That was it.
> On a whim he called Patrick Bell, a business adviser to architecture 
> firms, and that's
> when Downey finally got some decent Irish luck. As it happened, Bell was 
> working
> with a firm called the Design Partnership, which is doing a joint venture 
> with SmithGroup
> to design a 170,000-square-foot Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center 
> for the
> Veterans Administration Palo Alto Health Care System. Bell made the 
> connection, and
> Downey was hired as a contract architect.
> "It's the first time any of us have dealt with even a sight-impaired 
> architect, let
> alone one who is blind," says Kerri Childress, VA spokeswoman. "It's 
> really been
> beneficial having an architect who is blind working on a facility to serve 
> the blind."
> The design phase runs through July. From there, Downey has been invited to 
> serve
> as a mentor to blind high school students at a weeklong event this summer 
> in Maryland.
> (He's also back to cycling on a tandem bike with his buddy steering, and 
> is up to
> 60 miles in the Oakland hills.) And he wouldn't mind addressing next 
> year's AIA convention
> in Miami.
> "I was always nervous in front of crowds," says Downey, "but now that I 
> can't see
> them, I think it will make it easier."
> E-mail Sam Whiting at
> swhiting at sfchronicle.com
> .
> This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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