11:41
TEDCity2.0

Chris Downey: Design with the blind in mind

Filmed:

What would a city designed for the blind be like? Chris Downey is an architect who went suddenly blind in 2008; he contrasts life in his beloved San Francisco before and after -- and shows how the thoughtful designs that enhance his life now might actually make everyone's life better, sighted or not.

- Architect
Chris Downey is an architect who lost his sight and gained a new way of seeing the world. Full bio

So, stepping down out of the bus,
00:15
I headed back to the corner
00:18
to head west en route to a braille training session.
00:19
It was the winter of 2009,
00:23
and I had been blind for about a year.
00:25
Things were going pretty well.
00:27
Safely reaching the other side,
00:29
I turned to the left,
00:31
pushed the auto-button for
the audible pedestrian signal,
00:33
and waited my turn.
00:35
As it went off, I took off
00:37
and safely got to the other side.
00:39
Stepping onto the sidewalk,
00:41
I then heard the sound of a steel chair
00:43
slide across the concrete sidewalk in front of me.
00:46
I know there's a cafe on the corner,
00:50
and they have chairs out in front,
00:52
so I just adjusted to the left
00:54
to get closer to the street.
00:55
As I did, so slid the chair.
00:57
I just figured I'd made a mistake,
01:00
and went back to the right,
01:03
and so slid the chair in perfect synchronicity.
01:04
Now I was getting a little anxious.
01:08
I went back to the left,
01:10
and so slid the chair,
01:12
blocking my path of travel.
01:13
Now, I was officially freaking out.
01:16
So I yelled,
01:19
"Who the hell's out there? What's going on?"
01:20
Just then, over my shout,
01:24
I heard something else, a familiar rattle.
01:26
It sounded familiar,
01:29
and I quickly considered another possibility,
01:30
and I reached out with my left hand,
01:32
as my fingers brushed against something fuzzy,
01:34
and I came across an ear,
01:38
the ear of a dog, perhaps a golden retriever.
01:40
Its leash had been tied to the chair
01:44
as her master went in for coffee,
01:46
and she was just persistent in her efforts
01:48
to greet me, perhaps get a scratch behind the ear.
01:50
Who knows, maybe she was volunteering for service.
01:53
(Laughter)
01:56
But that little story is really about
01:58
the fears and misconceptions that come along
02:01
with the idea of moving through the city
02:04
without sight,
02:07
seemingly oblivious to the environment
02:08
and the people around you.
02:11
So let me step back and set the stage a little bit.
02:14
On St. Patrick's Day of 2008,
02:18
I reported to the hospital for surgery
02:20
to remove a brain tumor.
02:23
The surgery was successful.
02:25
Two days later, my sight started to fail.
02:27
On the third day, it was gone.
02:30
Immediately, I was struck by an incredible sense
02:34
of fear, of confusion, of vulnerability,
02:36
like anybody would.
02:40
But as I had time to stop and think,
02:42
I actually started to realize
02:45
I had a lot to be grateful for.
02:47
In particular, I thought about my dad,
02:50
who had passed away from complications
02:53
from brain surgery.
02:55
He was 36. I was seven at the time.
02:57
So although I had every reason
03:02
to be fearful of what was ahead,
03:05
and had no clue quite what was going to happen,
03:07
I was alive.
03:10
My son still had his dad.
03:11
And besides, it's not like I was the first person
03:14
ever to lose their sight.
03:16
I knew there had to be all sorts of systems
03:18
and techniques and training to have
03:20
to live a full and meaningful, active life
03:22
without sight.
03:25
So by the time I was discharged from the hospital
03:26
a few days later, I left with a mission,
03:28
a mission to get out and get the best training
03:31
as quickly as I could and get on to rebuilding my life.
03:33
Within six months, I had returned to work.
03:38
My training had started.
03:42
I even started riding a tandem bike
03:44
with my old cycling buddies,
03:46
and was commuting to work on my own,
03:47
walking through town and taking the bus.
03:50
It was a lot of hard work.
03:52
But what I didn't anticipate
03:55
through that rapid transition
03:57
was the incredible experience of the juxtaposition
04:00
of my sighted experience
up against my unsighted experience
04:04
of the same places and the same people
04:08
within such a short period of time.
04:11
From that came a lot of insights,
04:14
or outsights, as I called them,
04:16
things that I learned since losing my sight.
04:18
These outsights ranged from the trival
04:21
to the profound,
04:24
from the mundane to the humorous.
04:26
As an architect, that stark juxtaposition
04:28
of my sighted and unsighted experience
04:31
of the same places and the same cities
04:34
within such a short period of time
04:36
has given me all sorts of wonderful outsights
04:38
of the city itself.
04:40
Paramount amongst those
04:43
was the realization that, actually,
04:45
cities are fantastic places for the blind.
04:47
And then I was also surprised
04:51
by the city's propensity for kindness and care
04:54
as opposed to indifference or worse.
04:57
And then I started to realize that
05:00
it seemed like the blind seemed to have
05:02
a positive influence on the city itself.
05:04
That was a little curious to me.
05:08
Let me step back and take a look
05:11
at why the city is so good for the blind.
05:14
Inherent with the training for recovery from sight loss
05:19
is learning to rely on all your non-visual senses,
05:23
things that you would otherwise maybe ignore.
05:27
It's like a whole new world of sensory information
05:30
opens up to you.
05:33
I was really struck by the symphony
05:34
of subtle sounds all around me in the city
05:36
that you can hear and work with
05:39
to understand where you are,
05:40
how you need to move, and where you need to go.
05:42
Similarly, just through the grip of the cane,
05:45
you can feel contrasting textures in the floor below,
05:47
and over time you build a pattern of where you are
05:51
and where you're headed.
05:54
Similarly, just the sun warming one side of your face
05:55
or the wind at your neck
05:58
gives you clues about your alignment
06:01
and your progression through a block
06:03
and your movement through time and space.
06:05
But also, the sense of smell.
06:08
Some districts and cities have their own smell,
06:11
as do places and things around you,
06:13
and if you're lucky, you can even follow your nose
06:17
to that new bakery that you've been looking for.
06:18
All this really surprised me,
06:22
because I started to realize that
06:23
my unsighted experienced
06:26
was so far more multi-sensory
06:29
than my sighted experience ever was.
06:31
What struck me also was how much the city
06:34
was changing around me.
06:37
When you're sighted,
06:39
everybody kind of sticks to themselves,
06:41
you mind your own business.
06:43
Lose your sight, though,
06:45
and it's a whole other story.
06:46
And I don't know who's watching who,
06:49
but I have a suspicion that
a lot of people are watching me.
06:50
And I'm not paranoid, but everywhere I go,
06:54
I'm getting all sorts of advice:
06:56
Go here, move there, watch out for this.
06:59
A lot of the information is good.
07:01
Some of it's helpful. A lot of it's kind of reversed.
07:03
You've got to figure out what they actually meant.
07:06
Some of it's kind of wrong and not helpful.
07:09
But it's all good in the grand scheme of things.
07:13
But one time I was in Oakland
07:16
walking along Broadway, and came to a corner.
07:17
I was waiting for an audible pedestrian signal,
07:20
and as it went off, I was just about
to step out into the street,
07:23
when all of a sudden, my right hand
07:26
was just gripped by this guy,
07:28
and he yanked my arm
and pulled me out into the crosswalk
07:29
and was dragging me out across the street,
07:32
speaking to me in Mandarin.
07:33
(Laughter)
07:36
It's like, there was no escape
from this man's death grip,
07:37
but he got me safely there.
07:41
What could I do?
07:43
But believe me, there are more polite ways
07:45
to offer assistance.
07:47
We don't know you're there,
07:49
so it's kind of nice to say "Hello" first.
07:51
"Would you like some help?"
07:53
But while in Oakland, I've really been struck by
07:55
how much the city of Oakland changed
07:58
as I lost my sight.
08:01
I liked it sighted. It was fine.
08:03
It's a perfectly great city.
08:05
But once I lost my sight
08:08
and was walking along Broadway,
08:09
I was blessed every block of the way.
08:11
"Bless you, man."
08:15
"Go for it, brother."
08:16
"God bless you."
08:18
I didn't get that sighted.
08:20
(Laughter)
08:22
And even without sight,
I don't get that in San Francisco.
08:23
And I know it bothers some of my blind friends,
08:30
it's not just me.
08:33
Often it's thought that
08:34
that's an emotion that comes up out of pity.
08:36
I tend to think that it comes
out of our shared humanity,
08:39
out of our togetherness, and I think it's pretty cool.
08:43
In fact, if I'm feeling down,
08:46
I just go to Broadway in downtown Oakland,
08:48
I go for a walk, and I feel better like that,
08:49
in no time at all.
08:52
But also that it illustrates how
08:55
disability and blindness
08:57
sort of cuts across ethnic, social,
08:59
racial, economic lines.
09:02
Disability is an equal-opportunity provider.
09:05
Everybody's welcome.
09:08
In fact, I've heard it said in the disability community
09:11
that there are really only two types of people:
09:13
There are those with disabilities,
09:16
and there are those that haven't
quite found theirs yet.
09:18
It's a different way of thinking about it,
09:22
but I think it's kind of beautiful,
09:25
because it is certainly far more inclusive
09:27
than the us-versus-them
09:29
or the abled-versus-the-disabled,
09:31
and it's a lot more honest and respectful
09:34
of the fragility of life.
09:36
So my final takeaway for you is
09:40
that not only is the city good for the blind,
09:42
but the city needs us.
09:46
And I'm so sure of that that
09:49
I want to propose to you today
09:51
that the blind be taken as
the prototypical city dwellers
09:52
when imagining new and wonderful cities,
09:56
and not the people that are thought about
09:59
after the mold has already been cast.
10:01
It's too late then.
10:03
So if you design a city with the blind in mind,
10:06
you'll have a rich, walkable network of sidewalks
10:10
with a dense array of options and choices
10:14
all available at the street level.
10:16
If you design a city with the blind in mind,
10:20
sidewalks will be predictable and will be generous.
10:22
The space between buildings will be well-balanced
10:25
between people and cars.
10:27
In fact, cars, who needs them?
10:31
If you're blind, you don't drive. (Laughter)
10:35
They don't like it when you drive. (Laughter)
10:38
If you design a city with the blind in mind,
10:41
you design a city with a robust,
10:44
accessible, well-connected mass transit system
10:47
that connects all parts of the city
10:50
and the region all around.
10:52
If you design a city with the blind in mind,
10:55
there'll be jobs, lots of jobs.
10:57
Blind people want to work too.
11:00
They want to earn a living.
11:01
So, in designing a city for the blind,
11:04
I hope you start to realize
11:06
that it actually would be a more inclusive,
11:09
a more equitable, a more just city for all.
11:11
And based on my prior sighted experience,
11:15
it sounds like a pretty cool city,
11:17
whether you're blind, whether you have a disability,
11:19
or you haven't quite found yours yet.
11:23
So thank you.
11:25
(Applause)
11:28

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Chris Downey - Architect
Chris Downey is an architect who lost his sight and gained a new way of seeing the world.

Why you should listen

Chris Downey is an architect, planner, and consultant. Working with design teams and clients, he draws on his unique perspective as a seasoned architect without sight, helping to realize environments that offer not only greater physical accessibility, but also a dimension of delight in architecture experienced through other senses.

Downey enjoyed 20 years of distinguished practice on award-winning custom residences and cultural institutions before losing his sight. One of the few practicing blind architects in the world, Downey has been featured in many media stories and speaks regularly about issues relative to visual impairments and architectural design.

More profile about the speaker
Chris Downey | Speaker | TED.com