He’s the bassist for a spiritual Jewish community in Berkeley, an inventor of advanced technology for the blind, and now a MacArthur “genius”.
On September 28, the MacArthur Foundation announced Joshua A. Miele, 52, as a 2021 scholarship recipient. The scholarships, commonly referred to as the Engineering Prizes, feature $ 625,000 paid over five years, with no strings attached, and are awarded to “individuals who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their work and who have the prospect of achieving success. have even more in the future ”.
Miele, designer of adaptive technologies, was selected for his inventions allowing blind and visually impaired people to access everyday technology: TMAP, or Tactile Map Automated Production, a web tool for producing street maps for the blind, allowing get free, immediate tactile road maps from anywhere in the country; YouDescribe, which allows sighted volunteers to add an audio description to any YouTube video; and a glove which is a portable virtual braille device, allowing users to interact with their smartphones by tapping their fingers on any firm surface.
Another achievement, although not mentioned in MacArthur’s quote, is his founding of the Arduino blind project, which allows blind people to enter the maker space, using an open source hobby robotics platform.
“One of my father-in-law’s colleagues was in the first group of fellows, and I’ve known about this scholarship since I was 11,” he said in an interview. “I always thought of him as the American Nobel, and I thought in my career that would be a real mark of accomplishment.”
Miele said he was particularly surprised to be a recipient since he left academia a few years ago to work for Amazon as principal researcher in accessibility. His work there focuses on devices like Amazon Fire tablets and Alexa-enabled devices, making them more user-friendly for the visually impaired.
Miele, 52, lives in Berkeley with his wife, Liz, a retired librarian, and their two teenage children. His non-professional activities include cooking and bass, which he does for the meditation community. Torah of Awakening – The Jewish Path of Presence.
Directed by Miele’s childhood friend Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks, Torah of Awakening directs the musical Shabbat and High vacation services in Berkeley, in addition to the daily Zoom meditation and learning. Miele began performing Jewish music with Schachter-Brooks in 2003 in Chochmat HaLev, also in Berkeley, and their work evolved into the ecstatic musical events of the Torah of Awakening launched in 2016.
“Although Josh is humble in his playing and doesn’t consider himself a ‘real’ musician, he really does play music from within,” said Schachter-Brooks, who started playing music with Miele in the 80s, when they met in college in Nyack, New York. “Even professional players with a lot more experience can’t compare to his tasteful adornments and base game. During rehearsals, he will often gently guide the other musicians in a way that would not have occurred to me.
Since he did not grow up in a very religious home, he said that playing music in a spiritual context brought him closer to Judaism as an adult.
People generally assume that a blind child is in danger, and my mother was not interested in protecting me.
“We had a seder every now and then because it was considered culturally relevant, but we never went beyond it,” Miele said. “My long-standing discomfort with Judaism was that I didn’t know anything and didn’t feel connected to it. Playing in the group gave me a role; I had a job to do. After so many years, I have become much more comfortable with Jewish practice, and I find the participation rewarding and spiritual on many levels.
Originally from Brooklyn, Miele was blinded and burned at the age of 4 when a mentally ill neighbor threw acid in his face. His late mother, Isabella, became his lawyer.
“People generally 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. “
After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics from UC Berkeley, he returned to earn a doctorate. in psychoacoustics, a branch of experimental psychology that studies hearing.
While he initially thought about getting into rocket science, his career took a turn when he realized that “all the people 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 graduate degree to have the same credibility in the field.
For 15 years, Miele worked at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco.
“Josh’s well-deserved success is due to an extraordinary combination of innovation and pragmatism,” said Charity Pitcher-Cooper, a Miele colleague at the institute. “Besides being dazzlingly creative, Josh has an eloquence of thought combined with ruthless practice that makes most, if not all of his ideas successful.”
When Miele first arrived in Cal, he was unaware of its history as a major epicenter of the disability rights movement, which included many blind leaders. It was also the first time he had met so many other blind students.
“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 dormitories on the Clark Kerr campus previously housed 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 the city’s legacy of working with and 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 of the major American civil rights and education movements 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.” , did he declare. “Berkeley is truly one of the most important cities in history for the growth and evolution of the history of blindness in America. “