Empathetic Design: Seeing With All The Senses

Aging in place: Empathetic Design Chris Downey

I’d Rather RISK.

~Paul Brandt

Aging in Place

Several years ago I had the pleasure, and may I say the “delight,” to hear Chris Downey as a Key Note Speaker at the Environments for Aging Conference in Austin, Texas. Chris had an opening question for the audience of predominately architects and designers. It went something like this: How many of you have invested a day negotiating your environments in a wheelchair?

In a ballroom sized space a few tentative hands pierced the horizontal plane to acknowledge that they had indeed had that experience. In a room filled with bow-tie clad architects and splendidly dressed designers, the vast majority have never been in a wheelchair—remember, this was a conference on ENVIRONMENTS FOR AGING DESIGN and best practices around the world!

Empathetic Design

So taken by Chris’s words, I felt compelled to contact him:

Chris just heard you speak at EFA. It was the highlight of the Conference for me.I worked as a critical care RN for over 2 decades and a cardiac therapy volunteer at the Portland, Oregon Metro YMCA for 10 years. For many of the YMCAs’ cardiac therapy participants having their heart attack and surviving was the come-to-Jesus-moment. We called it “Their Best-Worst Experience.” Many underwent life style changes and not only regained prior health, but in many cases surpassed it!

Your ideas resonated with me on many levels and I kept telling others about your talk. I was sharing with an architect at the Conference about your being blind and an architect; an unlikely paring indeed but a “best-worst” experience because you now are a better one. You’re employing more of the senses and not privileging sight…The provocative surfaces if you will.

When you said you’d change Universal Design to “Universal Delight” I was in full agreement. Your environmental design is now more immersive to all the senses. Being blind is your un-fair competitive advantage.   

Empathetic design was the point you were making with the wheelchair question at the start–a very telling show of few who have ever done it–Like the sleep-over-project. It showed me the bow-tied-able-bodied crowd of architects and chic designers needed some real-life experience in empathetic design. I hope that message took hold.

You are part of the solution, Chris and you’ll never know the ripple effect (for good) of your work. Many delighted in your words few if any will write and tell you–I wanted you to know they impacted me.

Best, Patrick Roden

His return Email

Hi Patrick,

Thank you for your reflections, comments and support. It’s a pleasure to hear that you found the talk to be relevant and of interest. It’s nice to hear when connections are made for people in the audience and it is especially comforting to hear when positive impacts are made that may in some small way pull our thoughts and actions in a more positive direction for good.

Thank you for taking the time to contact me and good luck in all that you do.

All the best,


 It took the loss of sight to get better vision.


Resilience and Contribution

Not long after this encounter with Chris, I was meeting with my friend John Williams about his new purpose in life. John was a media personality in Portland, Oregon for many years. I grew up listening to John on the radio—I never knew he was in a wheelchair until I met him this year. I was talking to him about Chris Downey and making connections between his work and John’s. Both have “handicaps” and both are making the world a better place to live for all of us (not just those with so called disabilities).

I always wonder what possesses individuals like Chris, John, and my colleague Rosemarie Rossetti, to take the RISK of turning a life-transforming experience into a mission to make a difference. That kind of resilience and contribution is the best we can be as a species. The rest of us are considered lucky that we too aren’t afflicted with life-altering conditions—I get that, but I also feel fortunate that there are those among us who decide to come from a place of contribution—not despite “handicaps” but because of them. This is empathy at the highest level…

Video: I’d Rather RISK


Chis Downey Architect

Chris on 60 Minutes

Wheelchair Destinations

Rosemarie Rossetti Universal Design Living Laboratory

~Note from Author: The burden of “handicap” now lies with the environment/design, not so much the individual.

(image latimes.com)

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