A Blind Researcher Making A More Accessible World
Joshua Miele has spent his career trying to make the world more accessible for blind and visually impaired people. As a blind person, his lived experiences have shaped the way he thinks about technology and how it can be used to better serve disabled people. He’s invented products like YouDescribe—a tool that adds audio description to YouTube videos—and Tactile Maps Automated Production, a software that creates tactile maps for people to feel.
Although adaptive technologies try to help disabled people access information, it isn’t always driven by the input and needs of disabled people. There needs to be more disabled designers, engineers, and researchers spearheading this work, Miele says. Now, he works as a principal accessibility researcher at Amazon’s Lab126, where he helps make products like the Echo and Fire tablets more accessible.
Guest host Sophie Bushwick speaks with Miele about how his own experiences shape his work, and the importance of disability inclusion in designing new technologies.
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Joshua Miele, PhD, is a blind scientist, inventor, and principal accessibility researcher at Amazon’s Lab126. He’s based in Berkeley, California.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’m Sophie Bushwick, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. About 43 million people in the world are blind, and nearly 300 million more have moderate or severe visual impairment. To help make information more accessible to more people, the tech industry has really taken off in trying to design adaptive technologies, like screen readers, for example, but many ideas for adaptive tech are based on the assumptions of sighted people instead of the actual needs of blind and visually impaired folks.
Josh Miele is an inventor and accessibility researcher at Amazon as well as a MacArthur Genius Grant winner. He’s been blind for nearly his entire life. And now he helps invent tools to make the world more accessible for others too. He joins me now from Berkeley, California. Welcome, Josh.
JOSH MIELE: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be on Science Friday.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Let’s start with the basics. What is adaptive tech?
JOSH MIELE: Accessibility is really just design for people with disabilities. So there are examples of accessibility and adaptive technology everywhere in our lives, from curb ramps that help us get from the sidewalk into the street without having to go down a step, to elevators that have Braille labels, to screen readers, as you mentioned, that allow people to read what’s on their computer screens without being able to see. It’s everywhere, and it’s not always a technology that only supports people with disabilities. Very often, the best accessibility technologies or adaptive solutions support everyone and are particularly useful for people with disabilities.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And did you always want to design adaptive technology?
JOSH MIELE: I grew up, as a little blind kid, not wanting anything to do with blindness or disability. I wanted to be a space scientist. I wanted to send rockets to the planets and to the moons of Saturn and stuff like that.
And while I was an undergrad at Berkeley studying physics, I met a community of blind people at Berkeley that really were instrumental in helping me understand that I was not alone in the world of blindness– that there were lots of cool blind people out there doing important stuff, and that, in fact, we needed blind people in the accessibility industry so that we could build the tools we needed, not the tools that sighted people thought we needed. It was then that I realized that my creativity, my skills, and my thinking would be of great benefit to not only myself as a blind person who needed the tools to be good and meaningful but for lots of other blind people in the world. So I really I shifted from trying not to be involved [LAUGH] in blindness at all to really embracing blindness as an identity and as a career.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: What’s your process like, when you’re thinking up a new invention?
JOSH MIELE: My process is very organic, because usually thinking up a new invention is basically addressing a need that I already know that I and my blind colleagues and community are facing– an accessibility need that is unaddressed. And the first thing [LAUGH] I usually think is, why hasn’t anybody dealt with this before? And then I get down to thinking about what the solution would be.
And I always try to find simple, off-the-shelf solutions. That’s one of the things that I really need to emphasize. Expensive solutions are not appropriate for most people with disabilities. People with disabilities are deeply underemployed in the US, as well as globally, and so low-cost solutions are really important if you want to be able to make an impact on people’s lives. The solutions need to be within economic reach.
I don’t consider myself to be the source of all information. I’m blind. I live in a world where I connect with lots of people with disabilities– lots of blind people. But my experience is a unique one. I’m just one person.
And so, to make sure that any technology works for everyone, it’s essential to incorporate other people into the design phase– the testing phase. So I check my ideas at every stage. I talk to others.
Whether it’s formal or informal research, I understand what the various and wide-ranging needs are before I go too far down the road of invention. Because once you go too far down that road, it’s too late. You’ve closed doors that should not have been gone through. Or you will find that you’re addressing the wrong problem.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And are there ever times where you hear about a new product meant for blind people to use but you’re like, uh, who is this actually supposed to be helpful for?
JOSH MIELE: Yes. That happens all the time. I’ve got a Google alert set for a bunch of keywords– “blindness,” “technology,” “invention.” And it’s just amazing, how often I get these articles that are talking about tools for wayfinding, for crossing streets, for doing all kinds of things that, in fact, there are much simpler solutions for and that, if the inventors had stopped and really understood what solutions were already available and how blind or disabled people would be using these inventions, they would have done something quite different and probably much more useful.
But the enemy is always lack of information. The solution is always to learn and be curious. Find out more about what your customers need [LAUGH] before you do the inventing, so that you can actually solve the problem.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Can you tell me about an invention that stemmed from your own experience?
JOSH MIELE: I think all of them. Done a lot of work in tactile maps. I created a system called TMAP that is now available from the San Francisco LightHouse. And anybody anywhere can order a street map of any location they want that is accessible in Braille and large print and raised lines. That’s a way for blind people to be able to understand the street networks around where they live, around where they go to school, et cetera. I’m extremely proud of that and the fact that tactile, accessible street maps are now widely available to anyone who needs them.
I also have done a lot of work in audio description, the technology that allows videos to be accessible for blind people in much the same way that people probably are familiar with captions that are an accommodation for deaf folks to be able to know what’s being said. audio description is the converse. It allows blind people to know what’s going on the screen, through a set of very brief and succinct narration. And so I created some technology that allows people to add audio description to any YouTube video. That’s called YouDescribe. And it’s available at youdescribe.org. Those are two things that I’m super proud of and feel like were generated from my own frustration with the lack of available information in those areas.
I’ve also done a lot of work in STEM and science education for blind children and adults. I started a thing called the Blind Arduino project, which is a volunteer, grassroots effort to help teach teachers and children about how blind people work with hobby robotics tools and electronics. Blind people can solder, blind people can build robots, blind people can program computers, and it’s just a matter of making sure that everybody knows what techniques are necessary to do that.
So that’s very rewarding, as well. The work I do is part technology and, in much larger part, social activism and trying to explain to the world that blindness and disability simply mean that some activities are done differently but almost all activities are possible. It opens up not only more educational possibilities for students with visual impairments but also career opportunities. And as I mentioned earlier, employment is still a huge problem for folks with disabilities. So education is the key to that, I think.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And it sounds like, with making the maker movement and DIY more accessible through your work with this Arduino project, you’re possibly helping to foster the next visually impaired inventor.
JOSH MIELE: That’s exactly it. And so the Blind Arduino project is not only about teaching electronics, but it’s teaching kids– blind kids and sighted kids and adults– about how to build and invent for themselves. I do a lot of teaching about accessibility and accessibility design, because, for the first time, folks can actually build what they need. You can’t really buy an accessible voltmeter or multimeter or oscilloscope online. They’re just not available. So you need to build it yourself.
And the beauty and empowerment of being able to build tools like that for oneself, and to design it in a way that makes sense for what your needs are as a person with a disability, is extraordinary. The empowerment and the learning possible is really one of the most exciting and satisfying things I do in my career.
And it’s important to point out again that it’s not just blind kids that need to learn these lessons. The sighted children and adults that are learning alongside the blind kids, they’re just as much in need of understanding that, disability and accessibility, they’re part of life. And if we design the world properly, it’s not actually that big of a deal.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You’re at Amazon now, and you help make their products more accessible for everyone. So let’s say you walk into a lab. You get to try out a device for the first time. How do you go about evaluating it?
JOSH MIELE: The first time I put my hands on a device, I’m looking at the physical aspects of the device. I’m looking at, does it have buttons? Does it have buttons that you can feel? Does it have a touch screen? How many ports or jacks are there on the back of it? Are they easy to distinguish by touch?
So I’m looking at this for blindness accessibility. But, for example, if you can’t feel where a button is on a device, that’s going to make it hard for a blind person to operate. It’s also going to be hard for someone who can see who doesn’t have the lights turned on.
You look at the physical aspects of the device first, and you think about all the use cases that we know about, which are many. Who needs to use this? In what situations do they need to use it? And how can we make simple, easy changes so that it improves the experience for people with disabilities and for everyone else.
You do the same process on whatever digital experience there might be, whether you turn the device on– how do if it’s on or off? Is there a way to know? Is there a way to interact with it? Is there an app that needs to get paired with it? Is that app going to work well with single-switch software and magnifiers and screen readers?
So there’s a whole world of questions to ask about new devices, when you encounter them. And usually, the best approaches to making them accessible are the simplest. But it’s essential–
You can’t pick up a device that’s been produced and figure out how to make it accessible. It’s too late. Once it’s a device that has accessibility barriers, it’s too late. It’s really essential to get into that lab, not to check out a device but to talk to the designers, to talk to the engineers, to talk to the testers, to really connect with the people that are going to be building that device and make sure that they understand who’s going to be using it.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’m Sophie Bushwick. This is Science Friday from WNYC. I’m talking with accessibility researcher Josh Miele. Do you have an example of a time where you were able to go through that problem-solving process?
JOSH MIELE: Yeah. So Show and Tell is a great feature that’s available on all of Amazon’s multimodal devices– the Alexa devices that have screens. And those devices also have cameras. And the Show and Tell feature allows you to hold up a product, like a box of cereal or a can of something or a jar, and say, what am I holding? And the team that was working on it before I got to Amazon were very disappointed in what they were able to do, because they weren’t able to get the accuracy that they wanted. They wanted to be able to get the system to identify what they were holding up with a high degree of reliability. And they were very disappointed that their things weren’t as reliable as they needed to be.
And one of the things that I helped them understand was that if you’re in this situation, if you’re in the position of saying “what am I holding,” you don’t need necessarily an exact match. You just need information about what you’ve got. Chances are, you already know that it’s cereal, but you’d sure like to know whether it’s Captain Crunch and Rice Krispies before you open the box.
The system, it may not be able to provide you a 100%-accurate response about what you’re holding, but what you can do is provide all sorts of additional information about what it sees. So it may see branding. It may see text on the box that says “Captain Crunch” or some other words on the label.
So the idea of providing any information, as opposed to exact information, was not on their radar. So I helped them understand that really what they needed to do was provide some information about what was being held, not exhaustive, perfect information about what was being held. And in so doing, we created a product that is really unique, because not only does it try to do an exact match– and if it finds one, it lets you know exactly what you’re holding– but if it can’t find an exact match, it’s also in the process of looking for brand logos and looking for text on the box. And it’ll give you whatever it finds, whether that’s a perfect, 100%-exact match or just text that it read on the label. And any of that is helpful, and we consider that successful.
So I really helped the team understand what their success criteria was. They didn’t really understand how this was going to be used by real blind people in the real world.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And as helpful as adaptive technology can be, it can’t solve every accessibility issue. Right?
JOSH MIELE: Yeah. I often say that accessibility is the technical side of disability inclusion. It’s relatively easy to build technologies that allow people with disabilities to participate. Accessibility as a technical field is creative and exciting, but it’s not where the biggest problems lie. Generally, I would say that the societal issues around disability discrimination, ableism, and the long-term assumptions that people have about disability, about their fear of disability, their fear of saying the wrong thing– the barriers that there are for people with disabilities to have access to equal employment, equal education, access to entertainment–
There are technical problems, but the bigger problems and the more pervasive ones are really social problems and the assumptions that nondisabled people have about people with disabilities. And even people with disabilities often hold those limiting beliefs, as well, about themselves. And it’s hard to shift a society. As I mentioned earlier, I work on the technical parts of the problem, because [LAUGH] they’re fun and easy–
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGH]
JOSH MIELE: –relatively speaking, but I consider myself an activist more than anything else. And to create societal change in all of our assumptions about disability is the main mission. It’s the bigger mission that everyone can really contribute to by becoming more educated, becoming more aware of disability, accessibility, and learning about what ableism is and how to avoid it.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: What an important note to end on. Josh, thank you so much for joining us.
JOSH MIELE: It was my pleasure. I really enjoyed our conversation.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Josh Miele is an inventor and accessibility researcher at Amazon, based in Berkeley, California.