Josh Miele photographed at home in North Berkeley. Miele, an accessibility researcher, won a prestigious MacArthur fellowship in 2021 to pursue personal work. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

If there’s one major change in Joshua A. Miele’s life since September 2021, it’s that pretty much anyone he wishes to talk to also wants to talk with him.

“Before, they might have said, ‘Who are you and why should I care?’ or ‘You work on accessibility, that’s nice,’” he said. “But to say I’m a 2021 MacArthur fellow calling, it totally changes people’s reactions to you.”

The Berkeley resident of over three decades spoke to Berkeleyside about how his life has changed in the past year, since he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Often called “The Genius Awards,” the fellowship comes with $625,000 over five years, with no strings attached. They are given to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future,” its website says. “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.”

But pressed further, there’s actually quite a lot that has changed for Miele, even though he still works full time for Amazon, helping the retailer be more accessible. While the money is exciting, he said, for him, the grant “gives me the flexibility to initiate or pursue a bunch of projects that I wouldn’t have had the money to do myself.”

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One of the first things Miele did after receiving the news was hire an assistant. Finding the right person with the right skillset was not easy, Miele said. Eleanor Mayes is getting a master’s in design at Cal. It’s a part-time position for her.

“He is so great to talk to about such a wide array of topics,” Mayes said. “When he comes up with new ideas, my first reaction is always ‘Yeah, that sounds really cool, we should look into that,’ rather than thinking about it as just another project to add to the huge backlog of projects. He gets me curious right away about whatever he’s thinking about, so it’s very fun working for him.” 

The first thing he had Mayes do was find him a workshop space, where he can work on his various electronic, wood or metal projects, but she has done everything from editing video tutorials to looking for more accessible laser-cutter technology. 

Miele has been named Distinguished Research Fellow in Disability, Accessibility, and Design at Cal, his alma mater for both his undergraduate studies and his Ph.D., where he’s collaborating with Karen Nakamura, a professor of disability studies and anthropology. “I’m offering my feedback and advice on the projects her students are doing, as they study accessibility and design,” he said. 

Some longer-term projects he’s working on include starting a nonprofit whose mission is ensuring open source software is more accessible. While some open source organizations are already thinking about disability, there are none who make that its primary mission, he said.

Another goal is to raise awareness about Berkeley’s history as a center for the blind. While the city’s role in the disability rights movement is well known, Miele said, even many blind people don’t know its history, with the founding of what’s now known as the California School for the Blind in Berkeley in the 1800s, for example. The school is now in Fremont.

Because of its proximity and relationship with Cal, Miele said that “there were more blind people coming from here with college degrees than from anywhere else. … The students and teachers of the 1920s and ’30s who were at the school were the people who founded the organizations that now define the American blindness landscape.”

While he listed a few other items he’s working on, from continuing to grow the Blind Arduino Project, for those into hobby robotics, to planning an event in 2024 for people to gather in a rural part of the U.S. or Canada to listen to the radio sounds of the aurora borealis, one thing that’s taking a bit more of his time is that he’s working on a book with former New York Times editor and reporter Wendell Jamieson, who first profiled Miele for the Times in 2013.

After reading about his MacArthur award in People Magazine, Jamieson reached out to Miele and suggested they collaborate on a book.

Miele has long wanted to write one, but the topics he’d thought about included the history of devices for the blind, or the principles of screen-reader design. The reason he hadn’t done so thus far — besides time — is that he knew they would be for a limited audience.

Even though being the victim of a horrible acid attack that caused his blindness at age 4 is part of his origin story, Miele never felt drawn to write a blind memoir, as he’s read many of them, and didn’t think he had anything new to add.

As he put it, “I didn’t want to be inspiring people for things that shouldn’t really be inspiring,” like getting dressed or taking BART by himself.  

However, the award changes things, as does the fact that Jamieson was the one who proposed it; the book will come out with Hachette Books.

“The attack and the MacArthur prize are the bookends of an incredible story,” said Jamieson, who grew up in the same neighborhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as Miele, and remembers the incident from his own childhood. “There’s a lot of tough stuff in this book, a lot of ups and downs, but when Josh tells stories, he tells them with his wry, obnoxious, sarcastic sense of humor. We’ve never had a session where not we’re cracking each other up.”

Josh Miele visits his studio in South Berkeley. Having a work space out of his home to keep and use heavy machinery and “make a mess” was a big priority for Miele, who even keeps a few bottles of wine and cups for friends and colleagues who visit Josh often to chat and discuss projects. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Another significant change for Miele was the possibility of hiring an assistant, Eleanor Mayes a grad student who can help him advance projects that would be impossible to pursue due to his heavy schedule and commitments. At his studio, Miele and Mayes do tutorial videos of various projects. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Miele said that while this was not the book he had planned to write, he realizes the award gives the story a great climax, and “it will help me if I do want to write these other books that are less exciting in the future.” Plus, he added, “One of my goals is to be interviewed by Terry Gross [of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air] and the book would help that happen.”

When asked if the award has changed his day-to-day life in terms of being more recognizable now, Miele said there are people who congratulate him here or there, in a drive-by kind of way, but unlike sighted people, it’s not as if he notices people recognizing him.

“Not seeing people viewing me has been one of my privileges my whole life,” he said. “I think it has been beneficial to not have to see others watching me, not from being known and a person of note at this point, but people staring.”

But if using his newfound celebrity helps him help organizations he cares about, he’s fine with that.

Miele recently sat at a table at the Solano Stroll to help raise awareness for the East Bay Center for the Blind, on Adeline Street.

Unlike some other nonprofits serving the blind he’s been involved with, the East Bay Center functions on a tiny budget, and he joined its board to help raise its profile in the community. With its mission devoted to providing a space for blind people to socialize, he said its members are aging, and he hopes he can introduce it to the next generation.

“I know a lot of young, very capable, spirited and engaged blind people who want to hang out with other blind people,” he said.

The pandemic was extremely hard on the center, since Zoom socializing doesn’t work well for the blind. At the Solano Avenue Stroll, they managed to raise several thousand dollars, which will go far to keep its doors open. 

While Miele said he’s mostly adjusted to the media’s interest in him and the constant requests he gets now for mentorship and advice, and a new level of being known outside his immediate community, some things remain the same.

“Nothing has changed to give me more hours in the day,” he said. “I’m still the same old disorganized, procrastinative person I ever was.”

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...