A man with dark hair and a scarred face stands smiling
Berkeley resident Joshua Miele, one of 25 recipients of MacArthur “genius” fellowships, was recognized for his inventions allowing technology to be more accessible for blind and visually impaired people. (Photo/Barbara Butkus Photography)

Berkeley tech innovator for the blind wins MacArthur Fellowship

He’s the bassist for a Jewish spiritual community in Berkeley, an inventor of cutting-edge technologies for the blind, and now a MacArthur “genius.”

On Sept. 28, the MacArthur Foundation announced Joshua A. Miele, 52, as a 2021 fellow. The fellowships, commonly called the genius awards, come with $625,000 paid over five years, with no strings attached, and are given to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.”

Miele, an adaptive technology designer, was selected was for his inventions giving blind and visually impaired people access to everyday technology: TMAP, or Tactile Map Automated Production, a web tool for producing street maps for the blind, making it possible to get free, immediate tactile street maps of anyplace in the country; YouDescribe, which allows sighted volunteers to add audio description to any YouTube video; and a glove that is a wearable, virtual Braille device, allowing users to interact with their smartphones by tapping their fingers on any firm surface.

Another achievement, though not mentioned in the MacArthur citation, is his founding of the Blind Arduino Project, which allows the blind to get into the maker space, using an open-source hobby robotics platform.

“One of my stepfather’s colleagues was in the first group of fellows, and I’ve known about this fellowship from the time I was 11 years old,” he said in an interview. “I’ve always held it in my mind as being the American Nobel, and thought that in my career, it would be a real mark of having achieved.”

Miele said he was especially surprised to be a recipient since he left academia a few years ago to work for Amazon as a principal accessibility researcher. His work there focuses on devices such as Amazon Fire tablets and Alexa-enabled devices, making them more user-friendly for the visually disabled.

Miele, 52, lives in Berkeley with his wife, Liz, a retired librarian, and their two teenage children. His non-work pursuits include cooking and playing bass, which he does for the meditation community Torah of Awakening – The Jewish Path of Presence.

Led by Miele’s childhood friend Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks, Torah of Awakening runs musical Shabbat and High Holiday services in Berkeley, in addition to daily meditation and learning on Zoom. Miele started playing Jewish music with Schachter-Brooks in 2003 at Chochmat HaLev, also in Berkeley, and their work evolved into the ecstatic musical events of Torah of Awakening launched in 2016.

“Although Josh is humble about his playing and doesn’t consider himself to be a ‘real’ musician, he truly plays from the inside of the music,” said Schachter-Brooks, who began playing music with Miele in the ’80s, when they met in middle school in Nyack, New York. “Even professional players with tons more experience can’t compare to his tasteful ornaments and back-bone foundational playing. During rehearsals he will often gently guide the other musicians in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to me.”

Given that he didn’t grow up in a very observant household, he said that playing music in a spiritual context has brought him closer to Judaism as an adult.

People in general assume that a blind kid is in danger, and my mother was not interested in protecting me.

“We did have a seder now and then, as it was seen as culturally relevant, but we never went beyond that,” Miele said. “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 band gave me a role; I had a job to do. After so many years, I’ve become much more comfortable with Jewish practice, and I find participating fulfilling and spiritual on many levels.”

Originally from Brooklyn, Miele was blinded and burned at age 4 when a mentally ill neighbor threw acid in his face. His late mother, Isabella, became his advocate.

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

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in physics from UC Berkeley, he went back to obtain a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics, a branch of experimental psychology that studies hearing.

While at first he thought about going into rocket science, his career took a turn when he realized that “all of the people working in accessibility who were making decisions, who were writing and imagining the next phase of accessibility, were sighted Ph.Ds.”

Being an actual user of the technology wasn’t enough; he felt he needed an advanced degree so he could have the same credibility in the field.

For 15 years, Miele worked at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco.

“Josh’s much-deserved success is due to an extraordinary combination of innovation and pragmatism,” said Charity Pitcher-Cooper, a colleague of Miele’s from the institute. “In addition to his being dazzlingly creative, Josh has an eloquence of thought combined with a ruthless practically that makes most, if not all of his ideas winners.”

When Miele first arrived at Cal, he didn’t know about its history as a major epicenter of the disability rights movement, which included many blind leaders. It was also his first time meeting so many other blind students.

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

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

In 2015, Miele put on a storytelling forum celebrating the city’s legacy of working with and for the blind. He now says he might use some of the MacArthur money to raise the profile of that side of Berkeley’s history.

“All of the major American … civil rights and educational movements around blindness and visual disability came from Berkeley, and all of the leaders that have ever been significant either came from or lived in or came to Berkeley to learn,” he said. “Berkeley truly is one of the most important cities historically for the growth and evolution of the blindness story in America.”

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."

Forward

Content reprinted with permission from the Forward.