Architect says going blind has made him better at his job

Chris Downey lost his sight in 2008 after brain surgery. But instead of letting blindness ruin his career, Downey said it's given him insight into aspects of design he's never thought of before. See the full story Sunday at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS

Architect goes blind, gets better at his job?

A middle-aged architect who lost his sight in 2008 has found a way to continue practicing his profession, and even grow in it. He said blindness has ironically made him a better architect. Chris Downey told Lesley Stahl his remarkable story on the next edition of 60 Minutes this Sunday, Jan. 13 at 7 p.m., ET/PT on CBS.

Downey lost his sight after an operation to remove a benign tumor in his brain. "Lots of people, friends that were architects ... would say 'Oh, it's the worst thing imaginable, to be an architect and to lose your sight,' but I quickly came to realize that the creative process is an intellectual process," said Downey. "I just needed new tools."

He found a printer that can emboss architectural drawings so that he can "read" them through touch, the architectural equivalent of Braille. And he came up with a way to "draw" his own ideas onto the plans using malleable wax sticks. The San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, an organization that teaches the blind skills to help navigate life, helped Downey learn to get around on his own. He started relying more on his hearing and the sense of feel from the tip of his cane. That opened a new avenue, he said. "I was fascinated walking through buildings that I knew [when I was] sighted, but I was experiencing them in a different way," he told Stahl. "I was hearing the architecture, I was feeling the space."

As his luck would have it, after losing his job in the recession nine months after losing his sight, he discovered a firm that was designing a facility for veterans with sight loss. They were intrigued to meet a blind architect. "It took my disability and turned it upside down," said Downey. He now had an expertise "that virtually nobody else had to offer."

That job led to others, including work on an eye center at Duke University Hospital, a project for Microsoft and making a massive San Francisco commuter terminal accessible to the visually impaired. His pioneering designs include grooves to guide people along the platform and changes in floor texture to indicate when to turn to find the escalator. At the San Francisco Lighthouse, he came up with the idea to put an internal staircase connecting the building's three floors. The sighted can see it; the blind can hear the sounds of activities on the other floors.

Downey recently marked the 10th anniversary of losing his sight with a party at the Lighthouse, where he's been a student, architect and now, president of the Board. In a way, he said he feels like a kid again. "I am relearning so much of architecture. It wasn't about what I was missing in architecture ... it was about what I had been missing in architecture," he said.  "I am absolutely convinced I am a better architect today than I was sighted."