Joshua Miele, inventor of tools for the blind, wins MacArthur genius award

Joshua A. Miele says he always regarded the MacArthur Prize as “the American Nobel Prize”, and felt that receiving it would be the ultimate signifier he achieved. Credit: Barbara Butkus Photography

Joshua A. Miele received a text from an unknown phone number in Chicago a few weeks ago asking if he could schedule a call that day. The text was by a scientist from the MacArthur Foundation.

“When they ask you if you have time for a call, you say yes,” Miele told Berkeleyside on Wednesday morning. But he spent the next few hours in meetings, and given that he had nominated colleagues for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in the past, he spent those hours brainstorming variations on the same theme: They don’t wanna talk to you about you.

“I have known this scholarship since I was 11 years old.

But this time they did.

It was announced Tuesday that Miele, a resident of Berkeley for three decades, is one of this year’s scholarship recipients. The winners of what is commonly called the “Prize for genius” get $ 625,000 over five years, with no conditions as to its use. According to MacArthur’s website, these are “people who show exceptional creativity in their work and who plan to do even more in the future.” The scholarship is designed to provide recipients with the opportunity to pursue their own artistic, intellectual and professional pursuits in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements.

Among the projects that the MacArthur Foundation cited for Miele’s selection were his inventions: TMAP, or Tactile Map Automated Production, a web-based tool for producing road maps for the blind, allowing blind people to obtain free and immediate tactile road maps from anywhere in the country; You describe, which allows sighted volunteers to add free audio description to any YouTube video; and a glove that helped users type braille on any solid surface without the need for a keyboard or input device, back in the days when dictation was the norm for smartphones.

What they didn’t mention is that Miele founded The Arduino Blind Project, which allows blind people to enter the maker space, using an open source hobby robotics platform.

Miele has been particularly surprised to receive the MacArthur Prize since leaving academia a few years ago to work for Amazon as an accessibility researcher. His work there makes Amazon devices and website more user-friendly for the visually impaired.

“One of my father-in-law’s colleagues was in the first group of scholarship recipients and I have known about this scholarship since I was 11,” he said. “I always thought of him as the American Nobel, and I thought in my career that would be a real mark of accomplishment.”

Innovation and pragmatism

Miele, 52, lives in Berkeley with his wife, Liz, a retired librarian, and their two teenage children. Her non-professional activities include cooking and bass. (Disclosure: The reporter in this story has known Miele and her family socially for years.)

“I am incredibly proud to be part of a long legacy of blind leaders who come from and live in Berkeley,” Miele said. “Berkeley is the city of the blind.

For example, the current dorms on the Clark Kerr campus were previously the California School for the Blind before moving to Fremont in 1980, and developments in screen and voice readers to make computers more accessible to the blind were largely developed in UC Berkeley.

In 2015, Miele hosted a storytelling forum celebrating Berkeley’s legacy for the blind. He now says he could use some of the MacArthur money to raise the profile of this side of Berkeley history.

“All the major American movements… for civil rights and education around blindness and visual impairment have come from Berkeley, and all the leaders who have ever been important have come from, have lived, or come to Berkeley to learn. . Berkeley is truly one of the most important cities in history for the growth and evolution of the history of blindness in America. “

“It made a lot more sense to be proud to be blind.”

But the funny thing is that when Miele came to Berkeley as an undergraduate student in California in the 1980s, he didn’t know anything about the history.

“I came to Berkeley mainly because it was 3,000 miles from Nyack, New York,” he said.

The fact that he was interested in physics and that Berkeley had an item named after “was good publicity,” he said. Additionally, Cal had a long history of Nobel Laureates in the field.

When he arrived, he said: “I had never considered myself to be a person with a disability. I didn’t want to be blind. I wanted to be just another guy and I avoided anything related to disability or blindness.

His real education in Cal, he said, came from living in a community, in a cooperative, and for the first time meeting so many other blind like-minded students.

“I was hanging out with the coolest blind people I have ever known in my life,” he said. “Like so many other kids going to college, I found my people and my identity in the disabled community in Berkeley and realized that running away from blindness was ridiculous and it made a lot more sense. ‘be proud to be blind. “

While at first he thought he was going into rocket science, an internship at NASA got rid of this notion. His career took a turn when he realized that “everyone working in accessibility who made decisions, who wrote and imagined the next phase of accessibility were sighted doctoral students.”

Being a real user of the technology was not enough; he felt he needed a doctorate to have the same credibility in the field.

He returned to Cal to earn a doctorate in psychoacoustics, a branch of experimental psychology that studies hearing and how it works.

For 15 years, Miele worked at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco. He also spent many years on the board of directors of LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“Josh’s well-deserved success is due to an extraordinary combination of innovation and pragmatism,” said Charity Pitcher-Cooper, a Miele colleague from Smith-Kettlewell. “Besides being dazzlingly creative, Josh has an eloquence of thought combined with ruthless practice that makes most, if not all of his ideas successful.”

“An incredible connection with Berkeley”

Josh Miele is often seen walking around Berkeley. Credit: Barbara Butkus Photography

From Brooklyn, Miele was blinded and burned at the age of 4 when a mentally ill neighbor threw acid at him.

His late mother, Isabella, became his lawyer.

“People in general assume that a blind child is in danger, and my mother was not interested in protecting me,” he said. “She wanted me to be as active and engaged with the world as possible. “

Although Miele was not the best student, he enjoyed the same third grade visually impaired teacher until he graduated from high school. He said Joan Smith was a ‘badass’ in that’ she loved me dearly and made me do all kinds of things that I really didn’t want to do. She also transcribed all of my materials into Braille, drew all of my chemistry, physics, and diagrams so I could feel them, and basically provided me with a ton of skills that I would need as a blind kid to be successful in the world sighted children didn’t have. no need to worry.

He also singled out his high school chemistry teacher, Richard Herbert, who was Miele’s first phone call when he was able to share MacArthur’s news, as well as his friend from Cal, Marc Sutton, who helped him finding a job at Berkeley Systems, which is where he realized that building the technology he most wanted to use could be a career path.

As to what else he could use the money for, starting a nonprofit appeals to him, as does updating some of his older inventions like YouDescribe. An iPhone app he created called overTHERE, which was a research tool for the blind, also needs a major update; he could hire someone to work there.

Miele believes the city of Berkeley has also played a role in his professional development.

“When I walk the streets of Berkeley, I walk the paths that great blind leaders have taken before me,” he said. “I feel an incredible connection to Berkeley because of this and because you can be a burnt, blind, one-eyed gentleman here and not make a lot of remarks.”

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