Talking with A scientist for the blind

Name: Joshua Miele
Age: 46
City: Berkeley
Position: Principal scientist, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute


J.: Can you tell me a bit about Smith-Kettlewell and what you do there?

Joshua Miele: It’s a San Francisco nonprofit that specializes in research related to vision and vision loss. I basically research and develop accessible information technologies for the blind.

You have a B.A. in physics and a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics, both from U.C. Berkeley. Was your goal always to create technology for the blind?

I started out wanting to be a rocket scientist, but I was constantly having to figure out how I, as a blind scientist, could get access to the tools and information I needed to do my work. I realized my contribution might be more significant if I focused on that instead. Psychoacoustics is a branch of experimental psychology that studies hearing and how it works.

Josh Miele

You developed Tactile Map Automated Production, a web tool for producing street maps for the blind. Do your ideas come from things you would like to use?

Yes. I’ve always loved maps. The Internet gave sighted people the ability to pull down a street map of anyplace they wanted, and I wanted blind people to have that, too. I combined three basic technologies to make TMAP: mapping software, the web and Braille printers. For the first time it was possible for blind people to get free, immediate tactile street maps of anyplace in the country.

You also developed technology to allow sighted people to share descriptions of videos.

Video is one of the fastest-growing types of information in the world, and it’s not just kittens — it’s really important information for education and employment as well. Blind people get access to video with audio description — a special voice-over track added to the material that describes things that happen on-screen, like text and gestures. Networks and broadcast TV have some requirements and guidelines for video description, but videos on YouTube and other Internet videos are not included. I created something called YouDescribe, which lets sighted volunteers add audio description to any YouTube video for free.

You and the incident that caused your blindness at age 4 — a neighbor ringing your doorbell in Brooklyn and throwing acid in your face — were the subject of a New York Times article in 2013 ( You were initially hesitant to participate. Why?

All my life I’ve had to struggle with the balance between my work and the perceptions that people have of me based on what they think of those who are burned and blind. I’ve spent a lot of effort taking the focus away from what happened to me and refocusing it on my work in accessibility. I feel incredibly lucky that not only did the story bring attention to my work, but the author presented my story in a reasonably tasteful way. He really communicated what happened to both families and how it wasn’t a tragedy for me in the final analysis. He did an amazing job.

You’re raising two children with your wife, and word has it that you’re an excellent cook, which seems like it would be challenging.

Not really. Sighted people imagine that the visual aspect of something is everything because that’s how they perceive it, but really almost everything has other dimensions that can be detected with touch or smell or hearing. When you want to know if onions are starting to caramel-ize, you can smell that; if you want to know if water is boiling, you can hear it. I have a talking meat thermometer, but I never use it. I just poke at it; you can tell just from the texture of meat how done it is.

You’ve played bass in the band at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley for 12 years because of your childhood friendship with the synagogue’s musical director. How has that affected your relationship to Judaism?

I’m afraid my mom always told me that religion was for people with weak minds. We did have a seder now and then as it was seen as culturally relevant, but we never went beyond that. My lifelong discomfort with Judaism stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know anything and didn’t feel connected to it. Playing in the Chochmat band gave me a role; I had a job to do. Over 12 years, I’ve become much more comfortable with Jewish practice, and I find participating fulfilling and spiritual on many levels.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."