Dr. Joshua Miele Lost His Sight in an Attack as a Child. Now He Makes Life Accessible for the Blind

Dr. Joshua Miele wants parents of blind kids to know that vision loss is a "challenge" but "not a tragedy"

Joshua Miele

Dr. Joshua Miele is used to confounding expectations. He is blind, but he — and not his sighted wife — is the chef at home.

"The kids get very worried when Mom is going to cook," he jokes to PEOPLE.

And when Miele walks the streets in his Berkeley, Calif. neighborhood, he does so not with timid exploration, but with a bold stride. "He walks faster than the average sighted person," his wife, Liz, says.

His pace, she explains, is a metaphor for his approach to life: "He walks through the world joyfully, with a sense of 'Yes'."

That optimism takes some by surprise. After all, when people see the scars covering his face, they assume he must be haunted by past trauma. The facts seem to bear that out: As a 4-year-old living in Brooklyn in 1973, he was severely burned and left blind after a mentally ill neighbor poured a bottle of acid over his head.

But Miele, now 53, frames his history differently.

Joshua Miele
courtesy Miele family

"I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to get people to recognize that it was not a tragedy or horror show. It's just the way things turned out," he says. "Yes, it was painful, yes it completely changed my life. I am now burned and I wasn't before. But I want parents of blind children and parents of disabled children to know that this is not a tragedy. It is just a challenge. It is something that people just have to get through."

As a researcher and technology designer, Miele has been driven by that sense of possibility to create tools that help the blind community access and navigate the world. His innovations include easy-to-print tactile neighborhood maps and a crowd-sourced platform called YouDescribe which allows the public to provide audio commentary to YouTube videos.

"In the blind community there are so many technological barriers," says Miele's longtime friend Bryan Bashin, CEO of San Francisco's Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "Josh is a dreamer and he's relentless in finding work-arounds and ways to do good in the world."

Joshua Miele
courtesy amazon

Miele's work, which he developed while at the non-profit Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute and, more recently, in his current position as a principal accessibility researcher at Amazon, earned him a MacArthur "Genius Grant" last fall, an award "I dreamed of, literally — every nerd has," says Miele.

But Miele, who studied physics at University of California, Berkeley, where he also earned a doctorate in psychoacoustics, didn't set out to be a designer of accessible technologies — "I wanted to be a space scientist," he says.

While he did do an internship at NASA, he quickly realized that the tools a scientist needs for measuring, recording and analyzing data were not easy for someone who was blind to use.

"The world was not serving me in the way I wanted and I realized that if I was going to have the tools I needed, I had to design them myself," he says.

Joshua Miele
courtesy amazon

Today, he teaches soldering to blind students in hopes that they can build their own computerized technologies and become a bigger presence in STEM fields.With the $625,000 prize that comes with the MacArthur grant, he'll be able to do even more for the blind and disabled communities, including creating an open-source foundation to share accessibility research.

"Putting it completely unvarnished, it's a pain in the ass to have a disability," he says. "So anytime it's easier for people with disabilities to do something, it is a delight. I have a lot of plans — a much longer list than I think I can achieve in my lifetime."

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