Visually impaired architect has greater vision for his field

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
Chris Downey lost his eyesight in 2008 after a tumor-removal operation on his optic nerve but continues to design buildings and teach.

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Chris Downey was 45 when his world went black.

His eyesight had been deteriorating for months, yet it only took a few days for everything to fade into darkness.

In March 2008, Downey, who is now a lecturer in the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, received the devastating news that he would be permanently blind. Downey was crushed ­— not only because he had lost the ability to watch his son play Little League baseball or enjoy his weekly solo bike ride but also because his livelihood depended on his ability to see.

For more than 20 years, Downey had spent his days a week drafting and designing buildings as an architect at the Oakland firm Michelle Kaufmann Designs.

Would he be able to continue pursuing something to which he had aspired since childhood? He didn’t know.

“I’m laying there in the hospital thinking, ‘How will I get around, and what does this mean in terms of my profession?’” Downey said. “There’s certainly a lot to get your head around.”

Clouded with darkness

Downey, who has been teaching at UC Berkeley since fall 2011 and received his master’s degree from the university in 1992, first noticed something was wrong when he struggled to follow a baseball while playing catch with his son, Renzo, now 16. After his local optometrist failed to find any problems with his eyes, he was referred to various ophthalmologists and nerve specialists.

He underwent test after test until an MRI finally revealed a brain tumor pushing against his optic nerve. Downey required surgery immediately.

He entered the hospital for surgery on March 17, 2008. The tumor was successfully removed, but upon waking from the procedure, he could barely make out blurry colors and shapes. This was to be expected, doctors told him.

Yet his vision did not improve, and his sight only became further clouded with darkness.

Two days after the surgery, everything was black.

At first, Downey was optimistic — he believed that his sight would come back eventually. However, when Downey returned to the hospital weeks later, doctors informed him that his sight was irrevocably lost.

For a man in a highly visual profession, the news was shattering.

“It’s not something you can really prepare for,” Downey said. “It’s not like you’re going to go travel to Spain so you might go brush up on your Spanish. It’s not like I thought I would need to brush up on Braille.”

Downey’s life changed drastically following his loss of sight.

He focused on rehabilitation and discovered how to travel safely using a cane as well as how to use a software that reads text on his computer screen and cellphone aloud. Perhaps most important for Downey, however, was learning to recognize patterns in streets and cities and discovering new tools to aid his return to the profession he so dearly loved. Most notably, he learned to operate a printer that transforms blueprints into embossed drawings, which allows him to read tactile images through touch.

“It was like relearning architecture through other senses,” Downey said. “To me, that was incredibly exciting.”

Even without sight, the architect discovered that many of the limitations placed upon him by his disability could be overcome.

Building a new future

It’s a Friday afternoon in the middle of November, and Downey is sitting at the end of a long rectangular table listening intently as a group of nine students describes the accessibility features of various buildings around the world. They discuss walkways, entrances, ramps and signages, with Downey interjecting every few minutes to offer insight or anecdotes about their presentations.

“I talk a lot about the handshake of a building,” Downey says. “Just like when you meet someone and you shake their hand and you get a lot of information from that handshake, I think buildings do the same thing.”

Although Downey is blind, his energy and charisma seem to offset any negative consequences of his disability.

His class is split into two sections, with the first one examining the American Disabilities Act and the second exploring the concept of inclusive design.

“We had to come up with new ways of presenting to Chris — none of us had ever had a blind professor,” said Corey Schnobrich, a former student of Downey who still gets lunch with his former teacher every few months. “We thought of representing design in a different way to the greatest breadth of users.”

In his course, the UC Berkeley campus is the lab.

Students survey buildings on campus using a checklist to identify barriers that could create obstacles for people with disabilities. According to Downey, the checklist is geared toward evaluating accessibility of buildings built prior to the passage of the American Disabilities Act of 1991.

Busier than ever

Since his surgery, Downey has found himself busier than ever.

In addition to teaching, Downey serves on the board of directors of LightHouse for the Blind, a center that helps the blind and visually impaired live independently through rehabilitation and provides services such as access to transportation and employment.

He is also working on designing buildings for the visually impaired, including three eye centers, one of which is under construction.

“How do you design for the blind without making it look like a Fisher Price playground? How do you add a texture that helps guide us?” said Bryan Bashin, CEO and executive director of LightHouse for the Blind. “Chris is really great with that.”

Jane Nho covers student government. Contact her at [email protected].