When Dr. Joshua Miele was just 4 years old, he was the victim of a senseless tragedy that cost him his eyesight. A neighbor with mental health problems poured acid over the little boy’s head, altering the course of his life forever.
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Many people might have become bitter or depressed after a vicious and random attack. Instead, Dr. Miele has spent his entire working life trying to make things easier for people with vision impairment and who face other challenges.
Dr. Miele is now 53 and married with children. The first thing he wants people to know about him is that he doesn’t see himself as a victim.
“I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to get people to recognize that it was not a tragedy or horror show,” he explained. “It’s just the way things turned out. 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.”
After studying physics at University of California, Berkeley, he earned his doctorate in psychoacoustics with the hope of going to work for NASA. While he did go on to intern at NASA, he quickly discovered that the tools a blind scientist needs to do their work simply did not exist.
“The world was not serving me in the way I wanted,” he recalled. “I realized that if I was going to have the tools I needed, I had to design them myself.”
He has gone on to do just that, creating tools to help the blind community better navigate the world around them. He started with tactile neighborhood maps, an essential navigation tool that simply didn’t exist before, and then moved on to make a platform that allows the public to leave audio comments on YouTube videos.
Since those early creations, Dr. Miele has worked tirelessly to remove technological barriers through the non-profit Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. His work teaching blind students in STEM subjects earned him the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” grant, which comes with a $625,000 prize to use on research and development.
After 20 years in academic research, Dr. Miele made a career shift into the tech space a few years ago by accepting a job as Principal Accessibility Researcher with Amazon. Now, he develops new ways to make Amazon’s suite of products accessible to all users, making tools like Alexa, tablets, and TVs useable for the blind.
“Because I’m blind, and because I’ve spent most of my career designing and developing accessibility tools for blind people, that is one of the main areas that I focus on,” he said. “But I also make sure that we are doing what we need to do to design our tools for everybody — whether or not they have a disability, and whether or not it’s a visual disability.”
Since starting at Amazon, Miele has implemented Alexa’s “Show and Tell” feature and made Braille available on Fire tablets. He says he’s most proud of designing a new tactile overlay for Amazon’s Smart Oven and microwave because he was able to provide a “low-cost, practical solution to a problem that is faced by blind people every day.”
If we can change the way we think about disability, ableism, and inclusion, the technology will follow. There’s no more remarkable thing that could be done with artificial intelligence or technology than the transformation of the way we think about disability as a culture.
In spite of all of the complicated technology, Dr. Miele’s true life purpose is a simple one. He wants everyone, including people with disabilities, to be able to move through life without running into obstacles and issues. His dream is to level the playing field for everyone, “so that people who have disabilities can do and achieve and enjoy the things that are done and achieved and enjoyed by people without disabilities.”
This is an example of an individual who refused to let a tragic event lead to a tragic life!
Dr. Miele is admirable in many ways, but his tenacity, determination, and zest for life set him apart from the rest.
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