January 21, 2019

CBS 60 Minutes recently aired a feature on architect Chris Downey, who was left suddenly and completely blind following brain surgery to remove a tumor. While many people – architects or not – would consider this both devastating and career-ending, Downey himself is convinced “I’m a better architect today than when I was sighted.”

How is that possible, when architecture requires the ability to draw plans and create spaces? In his interview with CBS’s Lesley Stahl, Downey shares the key perspectives that turned tragedy into triumph.

Find Gratitude

At the age of seven, Downey lost his father to complications from surgery. After his own surgery, and despite his complications, he was quickly able to find joy and wonder in his life. “I’m still here with my family. My son still has his dad.” Downey’s perspective on life, loss, family and fatherhood was impacted by his own childhood experience, and it allowed him to be in a place of gratitude rather than resentment.

Refuse to Give Up

In his first meeting with a social worker following his blindness, she suggested career alternatives. But Downey felt lucky to be alive and wasn’t ready to accept a career alternative. He connected with resources, such as the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and got to work learning how to navigate his life and his career with his new normal. Downey has not only stayed in architecture but now offers a specialized expertise in designing spaces for the visually impaired.

Stay Out of the Box

Downey found a printer that would emboss designs when they were printed, giving him a Braille-like version of renderings. And instead of having his ideas trapped inside his head, his “sketches” are created using a popular children’s toy, bendable wax sticks. And, he’s discovered ways to continue to play ball with his son, using hearing and pointing instead of sight.

Use Your Own Challenge to Find Solutions for Others

As Downey became more reliant on sound and touch, he came to understand that design is not just something we see, but also something that we hear and feel. Downey used this new-found knowledge to enhance his designs, creating spaces that were aesthetically pleasing to the sighted, and that used ceiling height and floor texture to assist the visually impaired. He’s helped design a rehabilitation center for veterans with sight loss, the new eye center at Duke University Hospital, and a currently-under-construction transit center in San Francisco.

Face the Facts

Downey’s inspiring story reminds us of the importance of perspective – the ability to “see” ideas and solutions once we acknowledge reality and embrace the new normal, instead of remaining in the rut of denial, blame and other victim behaviors. If Downey can embrace blindness with such curiosity, creativity and grit, can we too face the facts and create possibility while navigating mere business and industry challenges?