Dr. Joshua A. Miele was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for his accessibility technology that assists blind and low-sighted people to navigate the physical and digital world. According to the MacArthur Fellowship, the award goes to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” Dr. Miele currently is Amazon’s principal accessibility researcher, helping to develop things like tablets, TVs, and Echo devices accessible for people with disabilities.
Dr. Miele was blinded and burned at the age of four when a mentally ill neighbor threw acid at him. For Dr. Miele, that was something that happened over forty years ago, and he has moved on in a big way. He has had a distinguished career as a scientist at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute along with a twenty-year career in academia. He plays bass in a band, is famous in Berkeley for his pasta salad, and is married with two children. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper met with Dr. Miele to talk about his drive for accessibility, “meta-makers” and much more.
Chet Cooper: I’ll jump right in with the MacArthur Fellowship award. Tell me about how that happened and what it means to you.
Dr. Miele: It is an extraordinary honor, and I’m still figuring out what it means for me. Anyone who works in academia or in creative fields knows about the MacArthur Fellowship. It’s an extremely high honor and very rare.
It was completely unexpected. In fact, I thought that when I switched from working in the nonprofit government-funded academic arena, and went to work at Amazon as accessibility researcher, that I was closing the door on the dream of being a recipient of this award. I thought, “Oh, well, I guess that’s not going to happen to me now.”
Winners don’t even know about their nomination until a few days before the award announcement when they receive a phone call. When I received that call, it was much more extraordinary than I ever could have imagined. First, because I thought that that possibility was gone, and second, because it was so totally unexpected!
Cooper: Do you know how the fellowships are given?
Dr. Miele: The fellowships are given on the basis of being recommended by your peers, by the people who know your work. The MacArthur Foundation has a large network of external, but anonymous, nominators within the academic and creative communities.
I’ve been a nominator. Nobody recommends somebody for anything other than the fact that they deserve it. The idea is that you don’t tell the people that you’re nominating them. It definitely adds to the excitement of getting that phone call!
Cooper: What does the fellowship provide?
Dr. Miele: The grant money is provided over five years. It opens doors for incredible opportunities. The money is both an invitation and an opportunity to do whatever you want to do. I’ve spent a lot of time in the world of grant-getting, and this is not a grant you can apply for. You can’t go to the MacArthur Foundation and say, “Please, sir, let me have one of these.”
The fellowship has two amazing angles. The money that comes with the MacArthur Fellowship is unlike other grants. With most grants, you ask for the money and submit proposals with hundreds of pages. The review process determines the eligibility and success of your proposal against other people’s proposals. When the money is awarded, you’re expected to do what you said you would do, plus, completing all the reporting requirements.
The MacArthur Fellowship has no such expectations. The money they give you is money to be used in any way that you see fit that will further your work. Depending on who you are and what stage of life you’re in, sometimes that means setting aside money for your kids’ college, because that’s something that you are worried about, and it is preventing you from being creative and doing your work. For some people it might mean setting up a lab or outfitting a studio. There’s no expectation of reporting back to the foundation what you did with the money.
It is no strings attached. When they say no strings, they mean no strings. I’m talking to you because the MacArthur Foundation said, “Hey, would you mind talking to this guy?” I don’t have to talk to anybody. I don’t have to write any reports. I don’t have to go to any MacArthur meetings. I don’t have to do anything, which is unlike any other award like this. It is truly no strings attached, which is an unbelievable gift. No strings attached is liberating in this aspect. That’s one angle of it.
The other angle of the grant is visibility. The MacArthur Fellowship is a very high-profile award. It offers the opportunity to talk about what I do with folks like you, and with other people who are interested in what I do. These are invitations to talk about my work. Invitations that maybe I might have never received. This gives me a phenomenal platform, and the time to let people know about accessibility. It makes the creative work that I do in accessibility highly visible. I’d be happy to talk about that if you want.
Cooper: That’s a great segue into the work you’ve been doing, which I think is very impressive, a history of your work. For people who do not know all of the things you’ve been doing, let’s back up in your career. You chose Berkeley as you entered into academia. Why?
Dr. Miele: I was born and raised in Brooklyn until I was about nine. We moved to the suburbs at that time. Nyack, New York isn’t a very easy place for a blind kid to get around by themselves.
I went to a small high school of about 1,200 kids in Nyack. I had been going to school with the same kids since I was in third grade. Everybody thought they knew who I was. Everybody had formed their opinions about me in third or fourth grade. It was very constricting.
I applied to Berkeley as an undergraduate. It was my first choice, where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Berkeley because in tenth grade I realized that Berkeley had an element named after them. That is advertising that you simply can’t buy. You’ve got an element on the periodic table, man; every nerd who wants to go into the sciences is like, “Wow! Berkelium? Stanfurdium? Those are obviously some places that are worth knowing about!” I came to Berkeley. I absolutely loved it.
I wanted to strike out on my own. I wanted to go to a large urban university where nobody knew my name and was as far as possible away from everything I knew and was part of. I wanted to build an identity that wasn’t constructed for me in fourth grade. I wanted to be my own person. I wanted to get around independently and I wanted to go to a badass school that had an element named after it—
—because I wanted to be a physicist. Berkeley is central to the mid-century narrative of American physics. It had everything I wanted. It was 3,000 miles away from my family.
It was in a beautiful, large urban area where I could get around independently, and it was a huge school where I could be pretty sure nobody would know who the hell I was.
Cooper: I’m assuming, tell me if I’m wrong, that part of losing your sight in that particular trauma, that stayed with you in that school, I would guess, and your friends.
Dr. Miele: No, not really. I was burned when I was little in Brooklyn, not in the context of the school where I grew up. That happened in Brooklyn. It was not an effort to get away from that trauma. It was an effort to get away from the assumptions that everybody had about what a blind kid could do and be. I formed some amazing friendships in my going to high school at Nyack, some of my closest friends are still the people I was friends with in seventh grade.
Cooper: That’s great.
Dr. Miele: But I did want to get away from most of those kids, because they sucked.
Cooper: We want names!
Dr. Miele: (laughs) I wouldn’t want to give them the honor. Nyack, New York, is a provincial little place. I think that it is a common experience for kids to want to get away from where they grew up so that they can build an identity as an adult. That’s what I wanted to do.
Cooper: Sometimes those small towns don’t have opportunities if you’re a big thinker and want to do something that’s beyond the scope of a small community.
Dr. Miele: It’s much more the small community. That was just one aspect of it. The no sidewalks and no public transportation was a bigger factor. If I wanted to do that, I could have gone to New York City. But I wanted to get away from where I grew up. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to be in a new place where I didn’t have a support network so that I could grow, be my own person. I didn’t want to be near my family. I love my family dearly. I miss them. I’m the only one out here in California. They’re all still back in New York, and I visit a lot. But I wanted to be able to grow, and I didn’t think I could do the growing I wanted to do if I stayed close to my family. So I went 3,000 miles away, to a place that did have sidewalks and that did have public transportation. And accidentally, I knew nothing about Berkeley’s disability rights history.
Cooper: I was curious if you knew of its robust history for disability rights.
Dr. Miele: I knew nothing about the disability rights movement, about the free speech movement. I really didn’t know anything about the history of the place I was going to. All I knew was that it was a cool urban place that was huge.
I also did not embrace my identity as a blind person until I came to Berkeley. I was blind. I knew I was blind. I wasn’t trying to pretend I wasn’t blind. But I sure as hell didn’t put that first in my identity. I was a smart rebel who hated school; I had a lot of things ahead of blindness in my self-identity. Before I came to Berkeley, I didn’t have a lot of blind people around me. I went to a blind camp as a kid. But I didn’t meet cool blind people until I came to Berkeley, and then I met a bunch of them. Little did I know that Berkeley was a great place for people with disabilities! The disability rights movement was still ringing in the air in the late ’80s when I came here. Many of the figures who were part of the disability rights movement were still in the community, still here, still doing things.
The aesthetic of the disability rights movement was everywhere. When I came to Berkeley, I found my people. I found blind people. I found people with disabilities at Berkeley, and I had never wanted that to be part of my identity. I had always tried to set that aside and say, “Yes, of course I’m blind, but I do all this other stuff!” Then I realized, “Oh, my God, not only am I blind, not only is it cool to be blind, not only are there all of these cool blind people I want to be friends with. Also, these cool blind people can be my mentors, teachers, friends, and guides in this world.” It made me think and feel that blindness is part of my identity that I don’t need to be ashamed of. I can be proud of it. I can embrace it and have it be part of the upfront element of my identity and who how I project myself to the world.
I’m so thrilled that I was able to make that transition so young. Some people spend a lifetime feeling shame about their disability and trying to say, “Hey, don’t think of me as a disabled person, think of me as a father, as an engineer, as a software developer who just happens to be blind.” But in fact, I’m not somebody who just happens to be blind. Blindness is a central part of who I am and what I do, and it affects absolutely everything that I engage with. I am thrilled that I was able to come to that understanding as a college student, and start to understand my place, my ability in the world to be a disabled person and to be proud of that. Not just to be comfortable with it, but to be proud of it. Does that make sense?
Cooper: Yeah. We’ve been following and seeing that there’s absolutely a shift going on with language, where there was person-first language after the ADA, and there are shifts going on right now of disability pride, as you’re saying, even in the comments in the video I saw. You definitely say blind people. “Blind” is a lead rather than “person” first.
What was your first breakthrough technology?
Dr. Miele: The work that I do, I do it because I have to. I got into designing accessible technology because I need the technology that I want to use. I consider myself part of the Maker culture. I think people with disabilities are meta-Makers. Not only do we have to be inventive, but we have to be inventive in order to do the things we want to do. A lot of the time before we can participate in any particular activity, we have to apply creativity to figure out the way we can participate. You have to come up with solutions, and maybe your community has some solutions that are already out there, but a lot of the time, you’re the one who has to figure it out. For me, especially when I was young, I had to come up with my own solutions for things.
Many of my earliest things that I would design or make were just for my own purposes. The first public-facing thing I was involved with, that I think of as an innovation, was OutSpoken, the screen reader for the Macintosh. I didn’t have any part in creating, but I did have a hand in helping shape its evolution. I came along after it was already released. Berkeley Systems was a small software company that was the first company to figure out how to do a screen reader for a graphical environment. I joined Berkeley Systems while I was an undergraduate as a college job. I was doing tech support. Soon I was doing technical writing, and before long I was doing basic design work on how features should behave.
It’s because I needed that tool. A screen reader is a thing that I need in order to do the things I want to do. I was highly motivated to make it something that worked well for me. And because it was a product that was being used by hundreds if not thousands of people, it needed to work for everyone. It was a great training ground on not only designing stuff for myself, but designing for a larger community of customers, of blind people, of users who needed this tool. OutSpoken was a great—one of the earliest things I got to work on. I’m very proud of that.
There are many subsequent tools I created again in order to meet my needs. When I went to grad school, we were using a program called MATLAB, which is sort of like Excel on steroids. It’s for data manipulation, management, and visualization. Everybody in my lab was using MATLAB. It had a command line environment, so it was easy to program MATLAB, but all of the graphing and visualization tools were completely inaccessible. I spent my first six months of grad school writing a set of accessibility tools for MATLAB. That was a real achievement. Basically, once I had those in hand, I could use the same tools that my fellow students and scientists were using to manipulate, manage, and display my data using sound, touch.
That trend continues. TMAP, the Tactile Maps project, is another moment of realization: “Wow, this mapping thing is really going to work! This is a tool that people never had before. I thought, “not only will it change the way blind people navigate, it will change the way everybody thinks about maps.” Because most people think of maps as being highly visual, but they are not. They’re spatial, and spatial information is completely adaptable to non-visual modes of presentation, but most people don’t think of it that way.
My favorite technologies are the ones that serve a purpose, that enable blind people to do things that they couldn’t do before or which were more difficult to do before. These technologies cause people to rethink their assumptions about the tool or the context of that tool’s use.
Cooper: The mapping, where is that today?
Dr. Miele: TMAP, the Tactile Maps Automated Production project, is now with to the San Francisco Lighthouse—I gave it to them. They use it to produce maps for their clients all over the world. They run a website where any registered person can request, download, and print out a tactile map on their own Braille embosser for free. Google it, you’ll find lots of resources about it.
Cooper: Are you familiar with Web for All?
Dr. Miele: Yes. One of the reasons why the MacArthur Fellowship is so important to me is that it basically is a signal to the world that accessibility is not just web accessibility. Web for All is a great organization. I have huge respect for all of the people out there doing web accessibility. I don’t find web accessibility to be a compelling and fun problem to work on. It is a relatively solved problem, and it’s just now a matter of implementation. I find it most exciting to work on creative problems where there are no guidelines and standards, where there are still wide-open questions about, what does accessibility mean in the context of this new project?
I have lots and lots of friends who are in web accessibility, but I myself am not a web accessibility evangelist. I’m not a web accessibility developer. I’m professionally adjacent to but not of the web accessibility community.
I think it’s great; it’s wonderful that they do that. It helps me personally, because I need good web accessibility. But I don’t find it exciting. The MacArthur Foundation says, “Hey, look at this, everybody! It’s not just about web accessibility. Accessibility is way beyond 508. It’s way more than just making your website or your app accessible. It’s about design. It’s about thinking deeply about disability and its intersection with usability.”
Cooper: What are you thoughts about OrCam?
Dr. Miele: The world is full of tools that can be used to help blind people do what they want to do and do it better. I am a huge fan of tools that let us do more things than we were able to do before. Some of the technology out there in the world are technologies that try to make people feel less blind, to act more like a sighted person in the world. I’m a cane user. I use a cane to get around. In my younger days, I was a dog user for a few years. I know both of those worlds. I’ve been approached by lots and lots of sighted folks who want to develop a tool that will help us get rid of the cane. And I think that is a misplaced view.
People say to me “The cane is so old and so clunky. It’s so embarrassing, because you look blind when you’re using a cane, and people don’t want to look blind.” My response to that is the cane is an incredible piece of technology. It is one of the most remarkable, reliable, and nuanced pieces of blindness technology in existence. The idea of a technology that can replace the cane—a smart cane or such—with something that can tell you what’s in front of you is misplaced. This sort of thinking comes from the misunderstanding that looking blind is a problem. I recognize that not everybody lives the blind-first existence that I do. Not everybody is as comfortable as I am in looking blind.
But really, I am. The amount of independence that people can gain by being more comfortable with being blind and gaining the skills of blindness, is enormous. A lot of the time, technologies are offered as a replacement for developing these “blindness skills.” A twentieth century blind person would develop such skill and comfortably. But now that we’re in the twenty-first century, a people are thinking, “Well, maybe those skills don’t matter any more.” But they do.
A technological replacement for building skills is not going to serve us well as blind people in the long term. I would rather people developed skills and got comfortable with being blind rather than leaning into technology that enables them to be less blind and develop fewer skills. I also am not a huge fan of expensive technologies. When a piece of technology costs thousands of dollars, that’s a time to say, “Wait a second, most blind people are actually, literally, living in poverty.” The majority of blind people are unemployed and don’t have the kind of money to spend on these expensive technologies. They do have the wherewithal and the resources to get training, build skills, and confidence as blind people. So again, the expensive technologies are sexy, they’re cool, but more often than not, they are designed by sighted people for blind people. Yes, I know there are blind people involved in OrCam. OrCam is not a technology that comes from the blind community. Neither are these smart canes or other cane replacements.
Most blind people who are independent realize that expensive, complex technologies will be less good than what they already have.
Cooper: Yeah, pricing is always difficult, lots of different areas within health and disability, it’s definitely a challenge in that respect as well as what you’ve been saying. I was thinking about the technology that scans and describes certain items, isn’t that the work you’re doing with Amazon?
Dr. Miele: Yes. There are a lot of different tools these days for using cameras to read text or identify products or do things like that. You can get apps on your iPhone or Android. But again, not all blind people can afford iPhones. If you are blind, in order to use a mobile device effectively, you need a certain degree of skill with a screen reader. One of the things that we’ve done at Amazon is to create a product identifier; we call it Show and Tell. It uses the camera on Echo devices, such as Echo Show.
Amazon has many different Echo devices. Some of them have cameras and screens and some of them don’t. The ones with cameras are able to do the Show and Tell feature. Before I tell you how it works, the whole purpose of it is to identify an unopened bag, can, jar or a box of something that you don’t know what it is. If you’ve got five unopened cans on your shelf, you can’t just open them all up find out what it is. This is a problem that blind people have faced for many years. Some people use special organization schemes. I always put the clam chowder on the left and the chicken noodle soup on the right. That’s one way of doing it. You can also put Braille labels on your cans.
But now we have camera technology that’s fairly available to everyone, it’s possible to use cameras to identify what something is. We built this experience so that people who have Echo devices can have not only an affordable way of accessing this kind of functionality, but one that is relatively hands-free. If you’re using a smartphone, you’ve got to hold the phone in one hand while you’re trying to identify the product pointing the camera. With the Echo Show experience, you can just hold it up in front of the camera and say, “What am I holding?”
Show and Tell is really convenient for people because a lot of people have Echo devices in their kitchens already. So using it as a way to identify groceries as you’re putting them away or if you’re looking for a particular product on your shelf—beans or olives— that’s exactly how It is used by people with different levels of sophistication, so it’s really convenient. Even if you’re a computer genius, it’s really easy to use, but if you are someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with computers or you’re new to the blindness world, or don’t know how to use an iPhone, everyone can use this. It comes at a very affordable price, the price of an Echo device.
Cooper: What was your role in that development of that technology?
Dr. Miele: I basically helped the team understand who would be using it and why they would be using it. The team initially had the idea that if they didn’t get a hundred percent match, that it was a failure. I helped them understand that what the blind person needs is not an exact match, but even a little bit of information can go a long way. So I had them incorporate not just image recognition and matching with their catalog, but brand recognition and also OCR (Optical Character Recognition). So if you don’t get an exact match, even if you don’t get any brand matching, you at least get a little bit of OCR that will read some of the stuff on the label. I helped them understand what the success looks like, not from your standpoint as a computer vision scientist, but from the standpoint of a blind customer. And success is anything that helps me figure out what this can or box is. It doesn’t need to be an exact match; it just needs to be some information about what I’m holding. Very often that is enough to let me know it’s clam chowder, not noodle soup.
I helped them understand what a blind person needs in order to hold a product in front of the camera and get real-time feedback. I also helped design the instruction, onboarding information, tutorials, and instructions that help people learn how to use the Show and Tell.
I helped design the usability research to put it front of customers. Doing research with blind and visually impaired people is not something that most researchers know how to do. It has some unique requirements. Some of my primary roles at Amazon is to help researchers understand what disability-inclusive research looks like, what accessibility research looks like and how to do meaningful customer experience research with customers with disabilities. That was part of the Show and Tell work I did, as well as work I do in many different areas of product development at Amazon.
Cooper: Great. Some of the other things you’ve done beyond that, can you describe, no pun intended here, YouDescribe?
Dr. Miele: (laughs) YouDescribe, sure! Audio description is a tool that blind people use to get access to video. Video accessibility for blind people is based on an additional audio track that describes what’s happening on the screen. It’s a human reading a script that is designed to be concise, to stay out of the way of the existing dialogue, and other parts of the sound track. It is to impact the original composition as little as possible, but to give a blind viewer the information they need about the visuals in order to be able to benefit from, enjoy, or otherwise use the video programming. Audio description is the converse of captions. Captions make the audio part of the program accessible to people who can’t hear. Audio description makes the visual part of the program accessible to people who can’t see.
But it requires a lot of creativity and editorial decision-making. My original thinking about YouDescribe was that audio description was entirely in the hands of professional describers. In adding audio description to a piece of video, you have to work closely with the video creator in order to not violate copyright. You can’t just go and add a voiceover track to somebody’s video and then redistribute it to make it accessible. That’s illegal. All of the audio description that was available prior to YouDescribe was created by people who were professionals working within the video—the film and TV industry and cooperating with the copyright holders.
I looked at that and said, “We’re never going to get it done like that.” There’s too much video out there. That’s a great model for film and TV, but with all of the video that’s being created and posted, we’re never going to get audio description for that, because it’s an expensive process to do it in the professional way. It requires professional engineers, professional scriptwriters, professional voiceover artists, and the redistribution of additional assets. It’s prohibitively expensive, which is why there’s so little of it or was so little of it at the time.
We store the added voiceover content separately along with the time stamps and the information about the associated video. When you go to YouDescribe to play any audio description of a YouTube video, it is synchronizing additional audio content with that video so that a blind person can know what’s going on.
One of the things I love about YouDescribe is that it can be used by professional audio describers to add content to YouTube videos, which streamlines the process for the describers. They can do it as paid work. If somebody says, “Hey, I’ve got this YouTube video. It needs description, can you do it for me?” that’s a job that somebody can do for pay. But it’s also available to a world full of volunteers, people who want to make it accessible for their blind friend, their colleague, their student. YouDescribe is used by teachers of the visually impaired all over the world to make content accessible for their blind students. It’s used by colleges to make their online courses accessible to their blind students. It’s used by people who just love a particular genre and want their friends to be able to appreciate it. It’s used by teenagers who want to do some cool volunteer work. It’s an easy, fun way to contribute to make the world a slightly better place.
YouDescribe has a request list, so if I have a video that I need description for and there’s no description for it, I can add it to the YouTube request list. A volunteer can come along and describe it for me, and I can have that description in hours or less, sometimes. YouDescribe also offers a rating system so that you can rate the quality of audio description, not just the quality of the video, whether you like the video, but you can rate the description, which is really important for describers, in the same way that if you take a Lyft and you give them less than four stars, they pop up a bunch of questions and say, “What could we have done better?” The same thing happens on YouDescribe. If you give a video less than five stars, there’s a bunch of options that you can click to say what could have been better. It’s feedback for the describers on how to improve. I’m extraordinarily proud of YouDescribe.
Cooper: You should be!
Dr. Miele: Thank you. YouDescribe is a demonstration. It’s not intended to be an endpoint. It’s intended to say, “Look what we can do if we allow anybody to add audio description! Not only can different people describe the same movie or piece in different ways, but you can have a professional do it, you can have a teenager do it.” We have not always had black voices or Latino voices in audio description. That’s one of the reasons why I want different voices to be speaking, and when I say “voices,” I don’t just mean the physical voice; I mean the intentionality behind those voices, the perspective and the experience of the people doing the description.
Description is an extremely subjective process. It’s not like captions. Captions can be done right or wrong. In audio description, there are lots of ways to do it right. Depending on who you are and what your perspective is, you will describe something differently than someone else. I want everybody to be able to describe stuff. I want us to experiment with what description means, who are the describers, and what should we be looking for in different types of video?
Different types of material require different types of descriptions. You don’t expect the same kind of description for Saving Private Ryan as you would for a video of your five-year-old’s birthday party. There are different requirements, and this is an opportunity to play with and evaluate what those different things are.
I honestly would be so thrilled if we could apply this same technology to any video that we watch and bring in other voices and commentaries. By the way, another use case for YouDescribe is professors who are not using it for accessibility, but as a way of adding educational commentary. That’s I think a great use case, right? The same technology can be applied.
Cooper: It should be used everywhere in describing what’s on the screen.
Dr. Miele: Even if it’s a blank screen, even if it’s just an audio recording with a blank screen, it’s worth telling the blind audience, “Hey, there’s nothing on the screen.”
That’s information. We have to be aware that there are different levels of description. There are some things that can be described really well by people who are masters of the art—because it is an art—and then there are some things that are not described as well, but can still be enjoyed. Many films dialogue-driven—like My Dinner with André—which doesn’t require a lot of description. It’s so much better with a little bit of description, even when it’s incredibly dialogue-driven.
Cooper: Yes! So you’re on a STEM trading card.
I love that concept of STEM trading cards. How did it come about?
Dr. Miele: They asked me if I would be willing to be part of the project, and as with so many things, you have to make sure that people aren’t jokers, that people are going to represent disability respectfully and appropriately. I made sure that they were able to do that. I was very impressed by their understanding of disability and their sensitivity to the issues that I was concerned about. I worked with them to do the STEM card. In the same way that I’m incredibly proud to be a MacArthur fellow, one of the things that is overwhelming to me is the brilliance and impressiveness of the other people I’m now associated with, the other fellows.
Cooper: Your peers.
Dr. Miele: My peers from this year and from years past, extraordinary people. The same thing is true of the STEM card. These are cool people. These are people doing important work. I’ve never met Temple Grandin, but I sure am proud to be connected with her through the STEM trading card deck. These are people I’m proud to be associated with. STEM education is really important to me, not just for blind and visually impaired kids and kids with disabilities, but for other kids. Kids who are ostensibly non-disabled can learn and realize that their disabled classmates are just as capable as they are and can achieve if they are given the right opportunities.
I don’t think that the idea of the STEM trading cards is so much for disabled kids to have them, to hold them, and to realize that they’re well represented, although I think that’s part of the idea. But the main, the bigger picture is to say to the kids without disabilities, “Hey, look at these people! These were kids your age once, and look what they’re able to do. Look what they’ve achieved. Take a look at your classmates who have disabilities and realize that they are capable of this kind of achievement, just as you are, with and without a disability.” That’s why I was happy to participate in that. I always try to emphasize this. The technology stuff that I work on, I do that because it’s fun, because I love doing it, and because the accessibility of the tools we use makes a huge difference in our ability to do the things we want to do.
But the bigger problem is the social dynamics and fighting ableism and assumptions about people with disabilities. The STEM trading cards, the Blind Arduino project, and other connected concepts are part of the bigger and, I would argue, more important picture. Again, going back to the language stuff, it’s important, but the thought process and the assumptions that underlie the language are more important. Similarly, accessibility is important, but thought process and the assumptions that underlie the creation of inaccessible technologies is the bigger problem. Fighting that problem from the elementary school level on up is the way we’re going to get a handle on it.
Cooper: Anything else we might have missed that you’d like to share?
Dr. Miele: I want to tell you about the Blind Arduino project.
Cooper: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Miele: The Blind Arduino project is basically a grassroots effort that I have been spearheading that encourages blind people to get involved to build devices themselves. Robotics and hobby robotics is really big in STEM education these days. Most schools have a robotics club that might build stuff and compete in national or international robotics competitions. Those teams are really intended to be hands-on learning opportunities for kids who are interested in going into STEM fields. Blind kids are more often than not not included in those opportunities because there’s the perception that, “How could you do that? You’re blind.” The Blind Arduino project grew out of this need to understand barriers faced by blind people wanting to participate in the DIY hardware prototyping.
Arduino is an inexpensive, open-source microprocessor platform used by everyone from young hobbyists to high-tech developers to build computerized devices, sensors, motors, wireless communications, and a lot of other tools. It’s very simple, very easy to work with. I’ve been encouraging opportunities that invite young blind people to build the skills necessary—because just like everything else, blind people can do it, but they’re not going to do it exactly the same way the sighted kids do it. There are different tools and techniques that they need to know about in order to participate as equals. But once they know about those things, they can participate. The Blind Arduino project is disseminating information about those tools and techniques. It promotes the fact that it can be done and encourages young blind people to self-advocate for their participation in mainstream hobby robotics.
I see this as hitting on many of the same things I just mentioned about STEM. It’s not just an opportunity for the blind kids. I want those sighted kids who are on the hobby robotics teams to say, “Oh, I didn’t realize that my blind friend Tania could participate in the hobby robotics.” But now of course it’s obvious that she can, and I want kids to be thinking about and solving the accessibility problems of STEM learning together. Once you get the blind kid in the hobby robotics team, it’s just a short hop to start thinking about, “What kinds of tools does Tania need? How can we collaborate with her to build cool tools to help her do other things she wants to do? How can she design her own tools to do the things she wants to do?”
Maybe, Tania is now more likely to go into a STEM field. Maybe to go into engineering accessibility tools and designing more cool stuff, by encouraging blind and sighted kids to work together on accessibility problems will drive the world out of its inaccessibility.
The other thing that the Blind Arduino project is doing is publishing designs for accessibility tools that might not be available for sale. You can’t go to Amazon or to eBay to buy an accessible oscilloscope. You just can’t buy one. But you can build one. I want the designs for accessible oscilloscopes, accessible multimeters, and accessible tools that you would need as a high-performing electronics enthusiast to be available. Building them yourself will be the best way to do that. The whole idea of this kind of DIY blindness stuff goes way back to the early twentieth century; the ham radio movement was disproportionately populated by blind people. They could build the stuff themselves, and they could talk about it using just voice over the air.
That’s why so many blind people were ham radio operators. It also reconnects with what I was saying earlier about blind people and people with disabilities being meta-Makers. We aren’t just Makers. We are makers of the tools we need in order to do the making we want to do in the first place. Before you can make the thing you need, you need to build the tools you need to make the thing.
Dr. Miele: It has so many lessons about self-reliance, self-advocacy and teaching, learning, and community-building. It’s an amazing—again, my favorite things aren’t just things that do something—they’re things that encourage us to shift the way we think about disability and accessibility.
photo credit —barbarabutkus.com