Berkeley inventor of blind adaptive technology wins MacArthur ‘genius’ prize

Joshua A. Miele won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship for his pragmatic inventions that help blind people navigate the physical and digital world.

Joshua A. Miele says he’s always considered the MacArthur Award “the American Nobel,” and felt that receiving it would be the ultimate signifier he had achieved. Credit: Barbara Butkus Photography

Joshua A. Miele got a text from an unknown phone number in Chicago a few weeks ago asking if he could schedule a call that day. The text was from a scientist at The MacArthur Foundation.

“When they ask you if you have time for a call, you say yes,” Miele told Berkeleyside Wednesday morning. But he spent the next few hours in meetings, and given that he had nominated colleagues for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in the past, he spent those hours thinking variations of the same theme: They do not want to talk to you about you.

“I’ve known about this fellowship from the time I was 11 years old.”

But this time, they did.

It was announced Tuesday that Miele, a Berkeley resident for three decades, is one of this year’s fellows. Winners of what’s commonly called the “Genius Awards” get $625,000 over five years, with no strings attached as to how it is used. According to the MacArthur website, it goes to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future. The fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual, and professional activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements.”


Among the projects that the MacArthur Foundation cited for Miele’s selection were 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 helped users 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 they didn’t mention was that Miele founded 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 of the MacArthur prize since he left academia a few years ago to work for Amazon as an accessibility researcher. His work there makes Amazon’s devices and website 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.”

Innovation and pragmatism

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. (Disclosure: The reporter of this story has known Miele and his family socially for years.)

“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 were previously 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 Berkeley’s legacy 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. Berkeley truly is one of the most important cities historically for the growth and evolution of the blindness story in America.”

“It made much more sense to be proud to be blind.”

But the funny thing is that when Miele arrived in Berkeley as a Cal undergraduate in the 1980s, he didn’t know any of the history.

“I came to Berkeley mostly because it was 3,000 miles away from Nyack, New York,” he said.

The fact that he was interested in physics, and Berkeley had an element named after it “was some good advertising,” he said. Plus, Cal had a long history of Nobel prize winners in the field.

When he arrived, he said, “I had never thought of myself as a person with a disability. I didn’t want to be a blind person. I wanted to be just another guy, and avoided anything related to disability or blindness.”

His real education at Cal, he said, came from living communally, in a co-op, and for the first time meeting so many other like-minded blind students.

“I was hanging out with the coolest blind people I had ever known in my life,” he said. “Like so many other kids going off to college, I found my people and my identity in the disabled community at Berkeley and I realized that running from being blind was ridiculous and it made much more sense to be proud to be blind.”

While at first he thought about going into rocket science, an internship at NASA divested him of that notion. 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.D.s.”

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

He went back to Cal to obtain a doctorate 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. He also spent many years on the board of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“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 Smith-Kettlewell. “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.”

‘An incredible connection to Berkeley’

Josh Miele is often seen walking around Berkeley. Credit: Barbara Butkus Photography

Originally from Brooklyn, Miele was blinded and burned at age 4 when a mentally ill neighbor threw acid at him.

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 benefitted from having the same teacher of the visually impaired from third grade until he graduated high school. He said Joan Smith was a “badass” in that “she loved me dearly and made me do all kinds of things I really didn’t want to do. She also transcribed all of my Braille materials, drew all my chemistry, physics, and diagrams so I could feel them and basically 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 also singled out his high school chemistry teacher, Richard Herbert, who was Miele’s first phone call when he could share the MacArthur news, as well as his friend from Cal, 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 else he might use the money for, starting a nonprofit appeals to him, as does updating some of his older inventions like YouDescribe. An iPhone app he created called overTHERE, which was a finding tool for the blind, also needs significant updating; he might hire someone to work on it.

Miele feels that the city of Berkeley has played a role in his professional development as well.

“When I walk down the Berkeley streets, I’m walking the paths that great blind leaders have walked before me,” he said. “I feel an incredible connection to Berkeley because of that and because you can be a burned, blind, one-eyed gentleman here and not cause much remark.”