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Disabled Lives Matter

Season 1, Episode 12

Co-Hosts: Nadine Vogel & Norma Stanley

Guest: Chris Downey

Intro: [Music playing in background] Disabled Lives Matter… here we go!

Voiceover: Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the disabled lives matter podcast with co-hosts Nadine Vogel and Norma Stanley... yay!

Nadine Vogel: Hello everybody, welcome to another amazing episode of disabled lives matter, this podcast is not just a podcast but rather a movement to show that people with disabilities do matter and joining me is my co-host, Norma Stanley.

NORMA STANLEY: Hi everybody.

Nadine Vogel: Hey Norma how's it going.

NORMA STANLEY: It’s been a beautiful day I hope as well, where you are.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely, absolutely and we are joined today by Chris Downey, Chris is the President of architecture for the Blind, Welcome Chris.

Chris Downey: Hi there. Hey, Nadine. Hey, Norma

NORMA STANLEY: Hi, how are you.

Chris Downey: Doing great

Nadine Vogel: I am so glad to have you join us, so you have been an architect, I think, for over 30 years. You probably started when you were like I don't know five.

Chris Downey: But yes, I got my first degree in architecture in the beginning of well graduated in 1984 and I’ve been working ever since it's taken a break, to go back to Grad school but it's been a non-stop Hall, and in working architecture and studying architecture since 1980.

Nadine Vogel: Now, if I recall correctly, you lost your sight in 2008.

Chris Downey: Got it yeah 2008.

Nadine Vogel: So please tell us you know a little bit about that, and your background and how you transitioned as an architect, even without site, because I think most folks if they're not familiar with blindness or visual impairments are probably wondering how the heck are you doing that.

Chris Downey: Yeah, I was kind of wondering that at first to it was a situation that was not expected, it was the unintended consequences of surgery. And I had not given it any thought and even as the as my sight, it failed started failing two days after the surgery and then next time I woke up, it was all gone I still didn't think that you know the blindness would stick that would be my new normal and it wasn't until a week and a half later that the doctors said there's nothing more they can do and it wasn't until then, that I was like oh, I guess that's it. And, and so, for the first time that day I started really dealing with it. And, and to make matters worse, within six hours, I was visited the hospital room by a social worker who came by to do deal with all the logistical things of registering of the state and social security all these things you do, and our opening sort of introduction said, and I see by your chart that you're an architect, so we can talk about career alternatives.

Nadine Vogel: Oh, my gosh.

Chris Downey: Yeah, so it was like it hadn't even been a day, not even half a day and I already was being presented with you.

NORMA STANLEY: You can’t do that anymore.

Chris Downey: Yeah, so that got my attention. That was disturbing and started like on any level, why on earth would anybody say that so quickly. Especially someone sent there to help out.

Nadine Vogel: Right exactly a little more training perhaps.

Chris Downey: Yeah, yeah but you know, but it was an interesting situation where, where I had recently sold the shares of my partnership to my partner and went to work as a managing director of a sort of startup and sort of architectural space doing prefabricated modular homes that were green sustainable really exciting work and I was to run their architectural office for that work and I’d only been there for less than three months, so the job description was very much still in mind, I could just go down the list that night of all of the job, my duties job description, and I could just check off the box, I could do this kind of this like it oh yeah I don't know about that one. Or probably, but it might take some time to get there, and so I got through that list it was like I can do 60-70% of what not description and then there was a handful of things that I thought I could do, but was going to need some training and some others I was like I have no idea how that's going to happen, but that gave me the confidence to, and partially with the by then I already had 20 years of experience.

Nadine Vogel: Right.

Chris Downey: So, I had a lot to build on, and so it was easier to see how I could stay engaged, to me the bigger question was how to be fully engaged and in a meaningful way that sort of kept me and sort of the creative side you know there's a lot of texts there's a lot of information, data management, all sorts of things that are tech space, but it was a creative thing of how to do that, that was, you know what about that, that was a big part of my passion for being an architect, so that was the critical question.


Nadine Vogel: So, there’s two parts to this right, so one is how you're suddenly thrown into this world and trying to figure out how to make this work, but how about this new employer of yours. What was their reaction and response.

Chris Downey: Well, you know it was, many would say you know losing your sight as an architect would be like the worst thing ever and I have friends that are architects, would say that to me when they would come to visit. But then when I really get down you think about it, you know they're architects by their personality by their traits characteristics by their profession that's a creative profession in the creative professions you value different perspectives different ways of looking at things in fact you're really kind of trained to tackle those to seek out those alternative ways of looking at things so in many ways it felt like, and I think they sensed and I think that the founder of the company, she was like one of the first one out of the box saying you're going to get this you know I’ve got all the confidence in the world that you can take this on and not just cope, but really do well and find sort of meaningful things within the profession and so she was she was supportive the office was very supportive and I wanted to you know they were very it's an energetic very optimistic opportunistic place, and so I was lucky in that regard to have that.

Nadine Vogel: I'm glad she wasn't you know, like the social worker.

Chris Downey: Yeah, that would’ve been very different.

Nadine Vogel: Very different exactly, and you know it's funny when you say about you know the creative part of this because I’m in the process of building a house right now and it's under the second or third house that I’ve built in my adult life and you’re right I rely on the architect, not just took to drop those blueprints but I rely on the architect for perspective yeah on all kinds of things and that really does reflect and revolve that creative process, so I think that that's interesting and think out of the box, I think that that's probably the biggest thing I rely on him for. So today, I believe that your specialty is universal design.

Chris Downey: Yes, universal design and I sort of expand that beyond to sort of user experience design. For the blind and visually impaired well maybe there there's being out in California, in the San Francisco Bay area I’m sort of surrounded by technology. And there in technology there's a lot of interest in user experience design and which I found kind of curious because an architecture it's all about in theory it's all about the people occupying the space occupying the building, the city, whatever it is. And it's all about that human inhabitation of the space and architecture had been teaching that a lot was big part of the profession in the in the 70s 60s and 70s and we had sort of drifted away from that and, to the point where it just really wasn't a major conversation in in the schools and in the profession and so much of it was built on the image, you know picture in the magazine the view from the street, whatever it was that image and, and so it really moved away from, whereas in technology they were really embracing that sort of human experience the user experience within the technology, the devices and not that they're perfect but there there's like major. All the major technology companies have you know entire departments in really, really powerful investment in people and people with disabilities. In that space really exploring it and trying to improve upon the experience of the broad spectrum of people that would engage in that technology and that device whatever and so yeah, I it's sort of a nod to them it's like the lesson, okay, they took it that baton architects, we need to take it on and take it back or take it with them and really sort of pursue those same things and part of it is theirs in universal design or thinking of it is inclusive design yeah that is really the critical thing it's about really trying. And I, these days I tend to prefer talking about is inclusive design about really including everyone within the space because it's not sometimes it's not that one thing one solution works for everybody. If you think about the high low drinking fountain well that's the perfect example you know, there are those that need to roll up to the lower drinking fountain or are shorter stature and that's the right size if that's all that was there myself if I’m you know I’m six foot four inches tall, if I have a bad back a moment or it's in a got a weird tweak that day I’m not going to be able to bend down that low to get to the drinking fountain so that's why they have the high low drinking fountains so. In user experience design yeah, I’m really trying to focus in on sort of the different user experiences, but through that lens of an inclusive design trying to find ways to really include the greatest broadest spectrum of people in the users within their environment.

Nadine Vogel: No, I think it makes a lot of sense, Norma, go ahead.

NORMA STANLEY: I know I love this because that's something I’ve always wondered about you know for real estate investors and people in developing you know complexes I know, even with the you know the active senior type of developments they have coming up for the aging population, but are they including the opportunities for people with disabilities to be able to access places like that I don't see enough of that happening and I’m really excited about what you're talking about in terms of universal design because that to me is like a really great market to really build on to use the word.

Chris Downey: And it's funny even within that market there's a lot of if it's handled well, it's in all in terms of compliance with accessibility regulations which. You know oftentimes a developer, or even an architect might think of that is like the gold standard within the disability community yet that's really that's the floor, yeah.

Nadine Vogel: Right, exactly.

Chris Downey: And that's in many cases, if you think about a senior living Center Assisted Living Center any number of places that simply is not enough. Right, that's just that's just keeping you out of the courts.

Nadine Vogel: Right, exactly, and you know it's funny we're so I meant to a building a home, and we have put an elevator in the home and there's no one in my family right now that requires an elevator, but I can have a friend that comes over next week, that would require an elevator. And even the island in my kitchen, we want to make we wanted to make sure that you could pass through on either side, it was enough room. For someone who perhaps uses a wheelchair or someone, perhaps it just is walking with a cane or a Walker and has a caregiver walking side by side with because you know I’m not getting any younger I like to think I am but I’m not and you know this could it could be me, that means that or it could be a friend or a family member whom ever, and so I have a concern about this, you know companies or professionals managing to the bottom. Managing for compliance the check the box and that's why I’m so glad you know, Chris that you're talking about inclusive design and variance because everybody talks about being inclusive I Norma knows, I have a saying that you know diversity is about you know, inviting someone to your party inclusion is asking them to dance.

Chris Downey: Right.

Nadine Vogel: Everybody talks about it, but I’m not sure they always know what that means, especially in your industry.

Chris Downey: Absolutely and you know and full disclosure I didn't have a full appreciation of it before I lost my sight and the disability community and got to really experience it from a different side and I would like to think that most architects most developers most planners would prefer to kind of learn that and get a sense of it, rather than having to experience it personal. You know there's something to learn it and I think that's where having that inclusive it, you know, to me, one of the biggest challenges I like to put out to the architectural profession is to encourage, and there's a lot of push for diversity within the profession and that's been focused on diversity ethnic diversity racial diversity gender diversity and Lord knows, we need more diversity across all those things in the profession, but also within sort of the people with disabilities, because you're the best teacher is that person next to you, and they are far too many architects. In this world that don't have people with disabilities in their office it's not part of their lived experience.

Nadine Vogel: Right absolutely well we are just at that time for commercial break so just stay tuned and for our listeners will be back in just a minute with Chris Downey and hearing more about inclusive design and user experience, Norma, we'll see you in a minute.

COMMERCIAL BREAK: Thursday, May 20, 2021 is global accessibility awareness day. The purpose of global accessibility awareness day is to get everyone talking thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion and the more than 1 billion people with a disability. Springboard understands this, and while many are interested in making their website and Internet sites accessible to candidates employees and customers with disabilities you’re either, one, not sure how or where to begin, two, concerned that you don’t have the in-house expertise to support the work or three, fear that the process is quite costly. This is when springboard comes to the rescue. We have a dedicated team that focuses solely on digital accessibility and usability and our experts can guide you on how and where to get started and can offer options to fit all budgets. to learn more contact us today at info@consultspringboard.com or visit our website at www.consultspringboard.com

NORMA STANLEY: All right, well you know I wanted to ask you, Chris this whole situation you know, like you said, the floor is just a basic thing that that that Ada, you know, requires people to do, but when you're talking about potential students and people who wanted to go into architecture, what would you recommend them to study, what would you recommend them to do to be become part of the industry that you're in and architectural firms who might want to hire them what would you say, would be a place where they can all come together and make something happen.

Chris Downey: Well, in many ways for tackle that right, right from the heart go for the juggler. For the creative space, that's what makes their world spin and gets them excited and, within that creative space the, way too often the thought is that these regulations, this different way of approaching it is limitation within that creative space. And I’d like to open it up to think about no it's actually about releasing the creative space bringing more people into the discussion different ways of looking at it and also different ways of imagining the space and thinking about things in a different way and and I actually had an opportunity, a few years ago, a couple years ago to participate in a program that was sort of spearheaded and the idea came from the dean of the bartlett school of architecture in London. He was curious about what the profession had been missing, by the fact that they had never had a student that was blind. And it just not been part of the profession and not been part of their academics. And he wasn't thinking about how to open up the profession to the blind per se, but more what are they missing. From the understanding of architecture from the creation of architecture, because it had excluded that perspective from that creative process, so I really think that's a remarkable position. And something, a position that I think more and more schools need to think about in terms of who's not at our table who's not sitting at our desk who's not sitting there in our in our design juries in the studios and what are we missing by not having that voice, what are we going to do about it.

Nadine Vogel: Right, that's probably the more important part right what are we gonna do about it, and what should they be doing.

Chris Downey: Yeah, so there's a lot of effort, like, I said to diversify, but this has to be part of that diversification awareness and strategy of reaching out to people and I'm sort of life. Sometimes I get asked the question of you know I’ve I had 20 years of experience, two degrees in architecture was a licensed architect before I lost my sight now about a young student who's blind that wants to go into architecture, what about them. And you know that's it's a really good question and it asks a lot of the professors it throws them deep into they're uncomfortable which is the creative space, you know when you have to be really creative it's because you're uncomfortable because where you are isn't quite right because they need to really solve something. So, here's a different way of thinking about architecture, here's a different you know require different way of presenting it talked about it, he didn't just throw an image up on us on a screen and then talk about it is if everybody understands it. And so, how do you communicate that, how do you how do you have those conversations but it’s a really. You know, by putting it into the creative space and getting them to think more broadly about the profession and about who they're designing for what's it about it's not if all it is about designing the privilege few or you know pretty privileged norm, or the average what's thought to be the average condition. Then that's a bit of a fallacy and that's something I sort of grown to really appreciate through having lost my sight. Is that you know it's It is like having a disability, having that kind of see change in your life that's basically like that's like a true essential confirmation of the human experience. That affirms our humanity and through that there's so much to gain and to offer, so it really needs to broaden the way architects are thinking about space who's inhabiting who's using who's benefiting from him and not how to accommodate them right to really include them, as you said, you know how to yeah it's not enough to just go to the party or open the door it's how do you get in there and dance and just be like everybody else and another way I like to think about is something that I came across in the, of all things, disability awareness merit badge handbook I was leading for my son's scout troop in there, it said that a person with a with a disability and they could question some of the language. I’ll excuse that, but I think the point is worthwhile, you know, a person with a disability isn't Is you know defines it a person with different conditions, but that that person isn't handicapped until a barrier is put in their way. Absolutely and to with a couple things that come from that. One is it's like the idea, the question then is well who puts those barriers there we offer those barriers it's architects it's planners it's developers it's inspectors that look the other way, you know it's any number of things. But also, most importantly, it puts the responsibility on architects and it's something I actually had psychiatrist once talk to me about architects and he said, you know in our training we get license we, we have to part of the oath we take the requirement we follow is to advocate for our patients and ours. In the people do architects to take over the responsibility of advocate advocating for their users, I never heard that before. Not part of the certification that's not part of being a licensed architect you look out for the health, safety and welfare, but to advocate for the you know the broadest range of users of people that hadn't least the hadn't been presented to me.

NORMA STANLEY: Right, that's so awesome and tell you the truth, that goes across all industries.

Chris Downey: Yeah.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely, because if not for my architect my builder my doctor my whoever advocating on my behalf my understanding, my unique needs then what's the output or outcome going to look like and I think to, and you know, Chris you're a perfect example of this is that the disability community is one of those private clubs that anyone can join at any time. Right, you never know when you never know how and the longer you live, the more likely in some way, shape or form, people will join it and so it's really advocating for life for people. because you might not need this today, but you could need it tomorrow. So that's, that's really important I am I think a lot of folks and especially architects don't think about that and again, I think it's also the way you're speaking to this Chris. Right, that it's inclusive design I love putting inclusive instead of universal. Understanding the seven principles of universal design, but perhaps coming up with a term like inclusive that are non-disabled counterparts to better relate to.

Chris Downey: yeah, and that's so, it's hard to argue with that it's right universal is somewhat abstract it's not quite as sort of immediately human. As the term of inclusive. So, there's a lot of power in that different language, but you know there's are some things like the principles are universal design. I really value those because as a code as a way of thinking it's not a code it's not codified but it's asking questions and posing some things that you really have as architects and designers you can't just look at the reference and comply with it, you got to think through it it's asking you to think. You know how you know is this is this providing equity and use it as if providing you know perceptible information yeah is that enabling the size and space for you to, and there's so many different ways of looking at it when I first did as someone who has recently blind. I was like I’m not seeing a whole lot in here specifically about the blind, but the more and more I dove into it more and more, I was like this is this is really remarkable there's a lot of depth here and one example is like a tolerance for error.

Nadine Vogel: Yes, yes.

Chris Downey: And that's it from the side of that experience I good experience, I had a somewhat painful experience I had once was when finding it's easy to find the first step to you know for a stair going down my cane finds it no problem, then I want to find the handrail so I went to the right side to find the handrail and boom there's the wall and I run yeah but my knuckles up against the wall and it felt like a cheese grater. It was like sharp all these sharp points on it and I had to drag up that to find where the handrail was it's like okay well without sight you can't be visually precise level of precision that sight affords yeah that's the privilege of sight, if you don't have that if you can't be that precise you might have you know imperfect vision or my some of my friends refer to as imperfect blindness low vision conditions and your site is deceptive or your you don't have as much control of your extremities if you reach out for something you need to allow for that imprecision you can't just assume everybody's going to hit that hand rail and avoid the horrific surface you just put behind it.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely and understanding to, that there are individuals whose disability is temporary. Whether it's sight or someone you know, is it a cast for six months, I mean, whatever it may be.

Chris Downey: Yeah, or just somebody coming carrying boxes or groceries home and all sudden your arms are all full and you can’t grab the doorknob if you have a lever the handle perfect. That lever handle is there because of Ada REG requirements, but, and you can have no disability whatsoever, except for that moment that you're carrying those groceries and then and then last year and astronaut, you can float it in the antigravity space you kind of need some flexibility.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely, and you know you know it comes down to barrier of thought, if I believe that people with disabilities don't need certain things, or that this is not important to people with disabilities and I act on it and I’m an architect or designer well then, there you go that right.

Chris Downey: Yeah, or the thing that oh they're not gonna be here.


Chris Downey: Whenever I hear that whenever I have a friend john me oh, you know this doesn't sound like a good hike for you like yeah turning on okay, the debate is over, I’m going.

Nadine Vogel: that's right that just makes you mad.

Chris Downey: Trying to decide for me that it's not safe it's not right and they're not allowing me to come to that conclusion I’m going.

NORMA STANLEY: Absolutely, like to say I don't like, for my daughter to miss out on anything and she does not talk or walk. But you know I want her to be a part of everything that she can be a pride of so I totally get just talking about don't assume anything about what a family member, individual, can do.

Chris Downey: I create a space expanding what you think about what people can do.

Nadine Vogel: Well, and Chris, I think you're a perfect example of that beyond being an architect, is it true you're a competitive rower on a crew team.

Chris Downey: Yes.

Nadine Vogel: Let's talk about that one.

Chris Downey: Yeah, it was. Something I never did sighted. And, about a year into having lost my sight had a friend who lives in downtown Oakland new Jack London Square, and he called me up and he said hey there I just found out they're starting a new a new men's crew team down here in the estuary. I talked to the coach he's up for-giving it a try with you, you want to do it, and I was like sure I don't know why not I’d actually had a friend who is blind, who was competing crew before she lost her side and then she picked it up again and so she had encouraged me to give it a try and when she realized I was 6’5, 6’4. And, and I was an avid cyclist she was like oh, you need to try rolling so anyway, I had that kernel that little thing thought in the back of my mind and it's as I got into it it's you know it's the perfect sport if you're blind and, in fact, a lot of teams it's a common practice for them to do drills with their eyes closed when they're all in the boat together. A big part of it is to is to listen to all your pay attention to all your senses, you need to hear the motion in the boat, you need to hear the blades catching the water. You need to hear the movement up and down as they slide on the seats; you need to feel things in the boat, you need to feel the set so that you know it's not tipping to one side or the other right in there it's an incredible multisensory sport, you have, there are times when the wheels come off and you got mayhem in the boat yeah, sight can kind of help out. But I can figure it out and, and the better you get the less likely you get mayhem in the boat. And it really, it's a remarkable thing I get in about I put my hand on the boat I go with it walk into the water get in and at the boat I’m just another guy just another button to see and it's all about whether I’m contributing whether I’m matching up and you know we've got some advantages in the blind experience you really get to really focus in on proprioception your awareness your body in space muscle memory. All these other experiences sound rhythm movement and there's so much to work with, and it is fabulous being out on the water, where you can just reach out, and you know just a couple inches away yeah there's water.

NORMA STANLEY: That’s awesome.

Nadine Vogel: Well, I think, if anyone illustrates what this podcast is about right Norma, that disabled lives matter, it is you. I mean architect you sing in your choir you're a cyclist you're on the road you're on the crew team. I’m not sure if there's anything you don't or can't do. But I know that our listeners are going to be so much better off for hearing this podcast and Chris you know from a business standpoint, if we have people listening to this that you know run museums run offices, want to learn more about how to work with you how best can we reach you.

Chris Downey: They can reach me through my website: www.arch4blind.com so it's architecture for the blind.

Nadine Vogel: Well, Chris Thank you once again, Norma this has been another great episode.

NORMA STANLEY: It sure has, thank you Chris.

Chris Downey: Well, thank you Norma, thank you Nadine.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely for our listeners we look forward to speaking with you again on next week's episode of disabled lives matter. More than a podcast it's a movement, and we want you to join us, see you soon.

NORMA STANLEY: Have a blessed one.

Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed during the Disabled Lives Matter podcast series are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of Springboard Global Enterprises, Springboard Productions, and its employees, contractors, subsidiaries, and affiliates. The developers of the Disabled Lives Matter podcast are not responsible and do not verify for accuracy any of the information contained in the podcast series available for listening on the Podbean hosting site and/or any other associated hosting entity. The Primary purpose of this series is to educate and inform, and does not constitute disability, medical and/or other professional advise and/or service(s). This podcast is available for private, non-commercial use only. Advertising incorporated into, in association with, or targeted toward the content of this podcast, without the express approval and knowledge of the Disabled Lives Matter's site developers is forbidden. You may not edit, modify, or redistribute this podcast. The developers of the Disabled Lives Matter site assume no liability for any activities in connection with this podcast or for use of this podcast in connection with any other Website, Computer, and/or Listen Device.

56 episodes