There are certain elements of Chris Downey's story that are inspirational as human interest alone: an architect suddenly losing his sight then losing his job with Michelle Kaufman Designs has nonetheless kept strong his joy of being alive and tenacity for being employed.
Using the Internet and telephone to explore the potential for his existing and new skill sets—for instance, what he calls being a "rookie blind person"—eventually Downey landed a job working with the SmithGroup on the Palo Alto, Calif., Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Beyond the human-interest elements—and on a more professional level—the story shows the importance of understanding clients' physical and emotional states of being. Soldiers who find themselves back in the States, at a rehabilitation center, and newly blind will be facing a jarring life transition similar to the new life Downey discovered over the course of a few short days. They will experience the same realization that their ability to read their immediate environment has changed, as has the balance of senses on which they will depend. Spaces are still experiential, but the experience is based more than ever before on sound and reverberation, senses of hot and cold, odors, and the feeling of breezes or lack thereof.
As Downey points out, it is certainly good that architects participate in experientially empathetic exercises, such as being blindfolded or using a wheelchair for a day. Empathy is not understanding, however. One day is not months, nor a year, and certainly not a lifetime.
To further generalize from this lesson: If there can be blind architects, there can certainly be architects living almost any imaginable life experience that parallels a similar (and probably substantial) population subset. Thus it is that one element of the AIA's focus on diversity and inclusion is to bring the talents of architects with special insights to bear on the broad range of issues impacting public health, safety, and welfare.
Then there are the more existential considerations. If there were no sight in the vast majority of people, what would the built environment emphasize in terms of aesthetic excellence? Would quallity be conveyed, as Downey mentioned to Architectural Record, by tactile cues? Would entry and wayfinding be defined by norms in acoustics and under-foot textures? And would the ability to perceive and bring focus to a certain range of wavelengths of light be considered a disability instead of vice versa?
This one person's experience provides more than a high level of admiration. Chris Downey also gives us a cause to pause, ponder, and wonder.