On Sunday, January 13, 2019, 60 Minutes featured LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in a story called “A Different Kind of Vision.” The story profiles of LightHouse Board President Chris Downey, as he celebrates his 10 year anniversary since becoming blind. The story is about taking on and moving past life’s challenges, and is a testament to the power of blindness skills training and vocational rehabilitation like the ones we offer at LightHouse.
Hosted by CBS News’ longtime anchor Lesley Stahl and produced by Shari Finkelstein and Jaime Woods, the 13-minute piece follows Chris’ journey through brain cancer, blindness and regaining his confidence and status as a working architect. The LightHouse’s new headquarters, designed with Downey as a consultant, plays a major role in the piece as do the LightHouse’s training programs and an interview with our CEO, Bryan Bashin.
The best part? Chris is unequivocal about every individual’s ability to continue doing what they love, regardless of eyesight. Stahl closes out CBS’ legendary Sunday evening news magazine by asking Chris one of the toughest questions for a confident blind person to answer: “Don’t you still want to be able to see?”
Chris pauses, thinking deeply about the question, and then finally responds, humbly offering: “I don’t really think about having my sight restored. There’d be some logistical liberation to it. But will it make my life better? I don’t think so.”
Overlooking San Francisco’s UN Plaza and with sweeping views of City Hall and downtown, the new LightHouse for the Blind building is a singular architectural landmark – unprecedented in the world of blindness and social service organizations. Complete with short-term residential facilities, extensive training and community spaces, and state-of-the-art technological advancements, the New LightHouse is worth a visit. Below are several pieces that tell the story of our new building and its design.
Every element of the design—from circulation to lighting to mechanical equipment and the tactile and acoustic properties of surface materials—was shaped to the advantage of users whose visual challenges and compensating skills span an enormous range. The perceptions that LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin most wanted to upend were those of new clients and their supporters. “Bryan wanted a space that was uplifting, not a woe-is-me experience,” said Mark Cavagnero, whose San Francisco–based firm was selected by a design committee as the architect for the $13 million project. Even so, the environment couldn’t be so “soft and gentle,” says Cavagnero, that clients would be unprepared for the hard corners of the real world. The LightHouse also had an extremely unusual resource in Chris Downey, a successful Bay Area architect who became blind during an operation to remove a brain tumor in 2008. Downey, who immediately decided to continue in his chosen career, joined the LightHouse board in 2009 and is now its president.
The cement floor is intentionally bare so that the sound of footsteps falling and canes tapping informs you that the space is full of life. If your hand were to graze against the furniture in the lobby, the material would be soft to the touch, as would the smooth wooden handrail to guide you up and down the staircase.
It was only several years ago when Chris Downey woke up from surgery, blind. Any architect in his position would be forgiven for shrugging off the overwhelmingly visual profession and moving on to something that blind folks were “supposed” to do. But Chris did not give up so easily. Seven years later, Chris remains a practicing architect and consultant for numerous projects, including our newly announced headquarters in downtown San Francisco. He is also a LightHouse board member, and a great example of how newly blind individuals can stay focused, defy norms, and move on with their lives and goals with the same effectiveness and purpose as anyone else.