Joshua Miele went blind at 4. Now he’s a MacArthur Genius
He’s the bassist for a Jewish spiritual community, an inventor of cutting edge technologies for the blind and now: a MacArthur Genius.
This week, the MacArthur Foundation announced Joshua A. Miele as a 2021 fellow. The fellowships, commonly called the “Genius Awards,” come with $625,000 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’s selection was for his inventions: TMAP, or Tactile Map Automated Production, a web tool for producing street maps for the blind, making it possible for blind people 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 for free; and a glove that would facilitate users to type braille on any solid surface without the need for a keyboard or input device, in the days before dictation was the norm for Smartphones.
What the MacArthur citation didn’t mention was his founding The Blind Arduino Project, which allows the blind to get into the maker space, using an open-source hobby robotics platform.
Miele 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 makes Amazon’s devices, as well as its web site, more user-friendly for the visually disabled.
“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. “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, 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 puts on 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 a local synagogue, and their work evolved into the ecstatic musical events of Torah of Awakening which they 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 eighties, when they met in junior high 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.”
Miele knew about his being chosen for the fellowship before the recent High Holy Days – which took place in person this year, outdoors— but was sworn to secrecy.
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.
“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.”
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 a Ph.D. so he could have the same credibility in the field.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Physics from University of California at Berkeley, he went back to obtain a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics, a branch of experimental psychology that studies hearing and how it works.
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.”
Originally from Brooklyn before moving to Nyack, 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.”
While Miele wasn’t the best student, he had one teacher of the visually-impaired from third grade until he graduated high school, Joan Smith, whom he called a “bad-ass” in that “she loved me dearly and made me do all kinds of things I really didn’t want to do.”
Smith transcribed his Braille materials and drew his chemistry, physics, and diagrams so he could feel them.
“She provided me with a ton of the skills I would need as a blind kid to succeed in the world that sighted kids didn’t need to worry about,” he said.
He also singled out his high school chemistry teacher, Richard Herbert, who was Miele’s first phone call when he could share the news, as well as his friend Marc Sutton, who helped him get a job at Berkeley Systems, which is where he realized that building the technology he most wanted to use could be a career path.
As for what he might use the money for, Miele said starting a non-profit appeals to him, as does updating some of his older inventions like YouDescribe. He also created an iPhone app called overTHERE that functions as a finding tool for the blind.
Miele might, he said, hire someone to work on it.
A version of this story first appeared in Berkeleyside on September 29 https://www.berkeleyside.org