This researcher builds ‘cool stuff for blind people.’ He’s also trying to help transform society

The world is studded with tools to navigate life, but those resources – from the schedule posted at your local bus stop to the cellphone in your pocket – aren’t always accessible for people with disabilities. They may be forced to spend extra time, energy or money to access the same information or experiences as non-disabled people. Inventor Joshua Miele says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“The fact that our built environment doesn’t take disability into account and accommodate for it, that’s not because we can’t do it,” said Miele, who has emphasized this idea across his decadeslong career as a technological innovator. Instead, he said, it’s the result of “inherent ableism,” or the many different forms of discrimination that people with disabilities face, “in the way our systems are designed.”

An estimated one in four adults in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inaccessibility can pose steep barriers when it comes to accessing opportunities like employment and education — the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is around twice that of those who don’t have disabilities.

There’s also some evidence of a persistent digital divide between those who do and do not have a disability. That’s according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey that concluded that Americans with a disability were less likely to own a smartphone or computer. Although the survey didn’t tackle the precise reasons behind that divide, we know that unequal access to digital information can significantly disadvantage those who grapple with it.

Removing barriers from experiences across the board that are historically inaccessible — like the process of setting up a new TV or tablet purchased off the shelf, for example — is key to Miele’s mission.

“Building cool stuff for blind people is great and fun and I love it,” he said. “But making everyday necessities accessible and usable by blind people and people with other disabilities — that’s how you transform societies.”

By helping shift expectations, more people will question why something isn’t accessible in the first place, he said, rather than accepting inaccessibility as a default.

Miele, who is blind, helps develop products at Amazon as a principal accessibility researcher, in addition to conducting research that helps the corporate giant better integrate the perspectives of customers with disabilities. In the big picture, he views his job as framing accessibility not as a case-by-case consideration, but one that is woven into everything the major retailer has to offer.

The researcher and 2021 MacArthur fellow emphasizes that efforts to further consumer and tech accessibility can’t be captured by a simple “checklist,” but instead must involve deeply considered creativity and problem-solving.

“It’s not just about making your website compliant,” he said. “It’s about designing and producing tools and experiences that are delightful and accessible and relevant to people with disabilities.”

“We need to have access to videos. We need to have access to games. We need to have access to ziplines and bungee jumping and whatever the other activities may be,” Miele added.

In other capacities, Miele has designed a wide range of tools aimed at assisting blind and visually impaired people’s access to information. There’s YouDescribe, a website that allows anyone to add audio descriptions to YouTube videos without interfering with the platform’s Terms of Service, and a set of tactile maps that blind people can use to navigate the Bay Area Transit System.

Affordability and widespread availability are throughlines of Miele’s career, as well as building tools that are customizable to a user’s wants and needs. He also spearheaded the Blind Arduino Project, which helps blind people get the skills they need — through methods like documenting techniques people can use and holding workshops that offer training — to become makers in the DIY hardware world.

“There’s a lot of stuff that blind people might want or need in an accessible form that you can’t just buy off the shelf because nobody’s building that product,” Miele said. “So the idea of enabling blind people to design and build the products that they need in order to do the things they want to do is a really exhilarating one for me.”

He also notes the cascading effect of this kind of engagement — the more people with disabilities who get involved in the hobby robotics world at any age and also perhaps enter STEM fields professionally, the more opportunity there will be to expand accessibility across those sectors.

In three interviews conducted between October 2021 and this month, he spoke to the PBS NewsHour about the key values that underpin his work, how our tools reflect our social biases and what companies can do to meaningfully bolster accessibility.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How can disability be considered a failure of infrastructure?
When we say disability, a lot of the time we think about what’s going on with the unique aspects of a person’s body that impacts their ability to operate in the world, right? So a disability is being blind, using a wheelchair, using a scooter, being deaf, not being able to read print. Most of us live in a heavily built environment, and most of the things that we interact with are human-made pieces of planning or infrastructure.

So the question is, how was the infrastructure designed so that it resulted in you not being able to use it? There’s a long legacy of devaluing and discounting and marginalization of people with disabilities. And that’s an “-ism” like any other, that’s prejudice like any other.

“It’s about changing the mindset so that people realize that not only are these tools going to enable people to participate fully, but that these people have the right to.”
We have this long legacy culturally — and not just in our culture, but globally — of thinking that when a person’s body is different from other people’s bodies, it’s lesser or not as valuable or less capable. If we design our tools and our systems to allow that person to interact equally, then that lets the person do it. But if we don’t design those systems, [it’s] because we don’t believe that person actually has the right to do it, or because we don’t value that person’s contribution once they’ve acquired the disability — and there’s a language problem here because we call it a disability, but the disability is a configuration of social processes and infrastructure.

It all comes back to the way we think about and value people with disabilities or whose bodies are different from the norm. If we don’t value them, we won’t build our systems to include them. And it’s a self-perpetuating problem.

What’s the difference between technical accessibility and inclusion?
Technical accessibility is a technical challenge – that’s just engineering. But you don’t just make the world a better place by building systems that are inclusive and that allow people with disabilities to participate. You have to address it socially as well.

That’s why there’s an activism component to what I do. It’s not just about building the tools. It’s about changing the mindset so that people realize that not only are these tools going to enable people to participate fully, but that these people have the right to, and we should be embracing the value that people with disabilities have to offer. Inclusion is a much harder problem, actually, to deal with the discrimination and ableism that is pervasive in our society, even among people with disabilities. The technical side of it is, in fact, the easier side of the problem. Changing society and its expectations is a much bigger challenge, but one that is deeply worthy of our attention.

You’ve talked about the “three Es” — education, employment and entertainment — over the course of your career. What do those concepts mean to you?
For so long, the only things that we cared about for accessibility and disability inclusion were education and employment. Because the emphasis was on being a contributing member of society, getting off the welfare rolls, that kind of rhetoric. Being able to be entertained by and enjoy the same things that non-disabled people are entertained by and enjoy wasn’t really recognized as having value in the accessibility world.

“If you want people to be able to use your tools, they need to be affordable.”
In order to be an included and valued member of society, you need to be able to talk about the same cat videos that everybody else is talking about. You need to be able to offer an opinion on the latest blockbuster that everybody else is talking about. And you need to be able to know what’s happening on the news when you watch it.

Affordability is another throughline in your work. Why is that important?
The painful truth is that a very large percentage of people with disabilities live in poverty. They definitely don’t have disposable income to spend on technology and tools. And so cost is always a primary concern. If you want people to be able to use your tools, they need to be affordable.

The technologies that blind people need to have good access to tend, these days, to be very expensive. I’m thinking of things like Braille embossers and note-takers [and] refreshable Braille displays. These things are all, like, ridiculously expensive — thousands and thousands of dollars — completely out of reach for most blind individuals, [but] the way they get paid for is through rehabilitation dollars.

If I’m a blind student, there’s an agency in my state that will buy the materials I need. And that’s a good thing, but it has this unfortunate side effect that the government is doing the purchasing of the equipment. And so it’s not a free market.

The fact that the government is doing the purchasing pushes the prices up. And so not only does the technology get pushed out of reach for blind people, but the market can’t determine what features are necessary, which products are best. Because certain products get on approved government purchasing lists, and getting onto those lists is very hard and getting off of those lists is very hard. [Once] you’re on one of those lists, you have no motivation to respond to your actual customers, the people that are actually using it. So it’s a broken feedback loop in a lot of ways, which is why I’m so interested in open source tools.

How did your experience as a student at the University of California, Berkeley help shape your career?
I definitely did not plan to make accessibility or blindness my career. I planned to be a space scientist — to be a researcher — and I was interested in planetary physics and orbital mechanics and spacecraft and planetary measurements, stuff like that. [But] as my interests became more and more technical, and more and more untrodden by other people, I realized that while I could contribute as a physicist, that there were many thousands of other people who were also interested in physics who were way better than I was at it and who really could make extraordinary contributions. And maybe I could, too, but I definitely knew that there weren’t thousands of other people who were thinking about accessibility and who could make the kind of contributions that I thought I could make.

When I was young, I really bought into a lot of the classic stereotypes and prejudices about disability, even though I was, of course, a disabled person. I didn’t want to identify that way and did everything I could to steer people’s attention away from my disability and into who I am as a person. But that was really driven a lot by shame and kind of wanting to disassociate myself from disability, which I didn’t think was a point of pride. And when I came to Berkeley, I met an extraordinary community of people who were thinking about disability as an identity, thinking about it very deeply and embracing it. And I met a community of blind people who I completely admired and loved and could look up to and who were comfortable being blind people and who were also amazing people beyond that.

So through this personal transformation, I realized that accessibility was a career that not only would I be really good at and have the potential to make important contributions in — and it was really needed — but that it was something I could be really proud of. I didn’t need to avoid it. And so I decided that I would make it my career.

How can companies improve the accessibility of their products and services?
Hire people with disabilities. The more people you have in your company who are disabled, who understand disability, who understand the role that technology plays in disability, the better you will be as a company — as an organization — at serving customers or stakeholders with disabilities.

In order to be effective at improving the lives of people with disabilities, you need to understand those lives and what people need, how they need it and what the constraints and other factors are in their lives that enable them to do one thing and not do another. Knowledge, in this case, is also power. And if you don’t have the knowledge of disability that you need, you will not have the power to create effective access and disability inclusion.

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