Celebrating architects who overcame disabilities

Chris Downey hero

The hands of Chris Downey, AIA, are more important than ever as a blind practicing architect who has to "feel" his designs.

The stories of four diversely-abled architects who have changed the profession

In the past twenty years, the architectural profession has become much more diverse in its acceptance and recognition of the contributions of women and people of color. But there is still much work that can and must be done to further these two constituencies, along with an acknowledgment that diversity takes on many forms.

There are no statistics or estimates on the number of individuals who would be considered “disabled” in the United States. And while there may be legal definitions of "disabled," many who meet those definitions but would not consider themselves as such. They may consider themselves “impaired,” and are often reluctant to answer related questions that could have negative effects on their futures. “Diversely-abled” may be a more appropriate moniker for those in our society, architects and otherwise, who do not define themselves by what they cannot control.

If we are ever to be a truly evolved society, diversity at all levels will be an important aspect of who we are. The following are just a few diversely-abled architects who have made an impact on both the profession of architecture and the world.

Chris Downey, AIA

Architect Chris Downey, AIA became blind as the result of an operation to remove a brain tumor. He is the subject of a short video from the AIA’s public awareness campaign. Downey is diversely-abled in that he uses his hands to “feel” the 3-dimensional design of a project. Within a month after the operation and subsequent loss of sight, he was back to work using the available technology to print drawings in braille.

Downey experiences architecture in a whole new way after an operation to remove a brain tumor left him blind.

He is quick to point out that he is “without sight, not without vision.” He “sees” with more than just his eyes, using his hands in a way that allows him to understand the design. Chris says his designs are not for the average man: They attempt to take in all possibilities, because anyone could be affected at any time by something that impairs their way of life.

Chris is a great example of how a person who is impaired later in life continues to be a productive citizen making a profound contribution to society. As our society continues to age, there may be more individuals who become impaired later in life. Are we to eliminate their future contributions?

Ralph Rapson, FAIA

As a recognized master of the modern movement, Ralph Rapson, FAIA practiced in Minneapolis for the majority of his professional life. Many do not know he lost his right arm from the elbow to the hand during childbirth.

Jane King Hession, architectural historian and writer, knew Rapson after his retirement from the profession. She stated that crafts were initially difficult for Rapson; this led him to drawing. In high school he created his own course work for drafting classes, where he excelled. Both King and Toby Rapson, AIA, the successor to his father’s firm, stated that Rapson never really spoke of his impairment. He preferred to be photographed mostly from his left side and kept the impairment hidden.

Nevertheless, Rapson's accomplishments in architecture and design span 70 years and connect the defining events and personalities of American Modernism. His furniture is in the collections of major modern art and design museums. His buildings are coveted for their masterful use of space, light, and line.

Ron Mace, FAIA

A design pioneer and coiner of the phrase "universal design," Ron Mace, FAIA, was a nationally and internationally recognized architect, product designer, and educator whose design philosophy provided a foundation for a more usable world. His pioneering work in accessible design was instrumental in the passage of national legislation prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The Principles of Universal Design, as compiled by Ron Mace's Center for Universal Design at NC State University.

In 1989, Mace—who spent the majority of his life in a wheel chair as a result of polio—established the federally funded Center for Accessible Housing, currently known as the Center for Universal Design, at the School of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Under Ron's direction, the Center became a leading national and international resource for research and information on universal design in housing, products, and the built environment.

Mace was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and received the Distinguished Service Award of the President of the United States in 1992 for distinguished service in promoting dignity, equality, independence and employment of people with disabilities. He passed away in 1998.

Karen Braitmayer, FAIA

Karen Braitmayer, FAIA, of Seattle uses a wheelchair as her means of ambulation, as she has a genetic disorder that is characterized by brittle bones. Braitmayer did not come to architecture early on: Her undergraduate degree is in liberal arts, and she started off her career as a sociological researcher. It did not take her long to figure out that this was the wrong career choice.

When she was considering graduate school, she had concerns that she could not draw. The schools told her not to be concerned; they would teach her that skill. In 1985, she received her M.Arch. from the University of Houston.

As she interviewed with several firms, Braitmayer would make a point to identify possible employers by driving by and examining what literal obstacles might be in the way of her gaining access to their offices. If there were impediments, she did not seek employment.

Karen Braitmayer, FAIA, became an expert on accessibility in large part due to navigating obstacles at the offices of potential employers.

The experience led her to become an expert on accessibility. As she says, “...architecture is a manifestation of how we see the world. I just see it from a little lower vantage point.” While some potential clients may be surprised at first to meet an architect in a wheelchair, her work speaks for itself and removes any ambivalence; in 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Braitmayer to the United States Access Board.

Braitmayer believes the lack of diversely-abled people in all professions may begin in the early education process. In many cases, educators and counselors are not fully equipped to properly guide the diversely-abled who push to join a learned profession. Seattle has adopted a program called DO-IT that challenges these issues by targeting educators and employers and pushes for better understanding the contributions of the diversely-abled.

What does the future hold?

The profession that we practice today has been in existence for slightly more than 250 years. It has always evolved as to operations and the tools used to create cities and buildings around the world, and its acceptance of practitioners has also evolved: 250 years ago, architecture was a “gentlemen’s” profession limited to the gentry. Slowly, over time, change has crept in.

What can we conclude from the diversely-abled persons cited? As women and persons of color have become an integral part of architecture, there is no denying that their contributions have heightened our designs. Due to their unique histories and experiences, diversely-abled persons can only further enhance the betterment of society in designing healthy environments. Society needs to encourage those who positively contribute to the communities in which they live, regardless of where they came from, what they look like, or how they practice.

Greg Burke, AIA, is president of Gregory John Burke | ARCHITECT, PA in Vero Beach, Florida and vice president of AIA Florida. Born with twin birth defects that left two fingers and two toes missing from each hand and foot, he's been an AIA member since 1984 and a practicing architect for three decades. He is also in his third year as a member of the AIA National Diversity Council, serving this year as Vice-Chair.

Image credits

Chris Downey hero

Beatrice Seifert

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