The Meta Maker of the 21st Century: Joshua Miele’s Path to Accessible Design

By: Danny Thomas Vang, Students for Access Intern

Whether it be the layout of a room, the words on a sheet of paper, or the comprehension of how to effectively use a piece of technology, information is the basis for success.  Without access to this information, a person will not have the ability to complete a task to their fullest potential.  This is why Joshua Miele has made it his mission to bridge the gap between access to information and people with disabilities.  Growing up in New York in a supportive environment, there was no doubt in Miele’s mind that he would one day become a scientist.  “I have been successful to the degree that I have because of all sorts of luck and circumstance.  I have a supportive family and I am a middle class white male.  I come from a family where college was not a thing that you might do, it was the thing that you did.” Josh Miele stands in a hallway wearing a purple button up shirt, black suit jacket and holds his white cane Photo by the New York Times

In October 1973, Miele lost his vision at the age of four because of an unpredictable action from his next door neighbor.  Miele heard the doorbell ring while playing in the backyard, so he went to identify who the visitor was.  After opening the gate for his neighbor, the last item he saw was the wood paneling in the vestibule; the neighbor had poured a jar of sulfuric acid on his head.  Rather than succumb to a sense of hopelessness and despair because of a sudden life change for their family member, his family was supportive in his recovery and in his future endeavors as a blind scientist and engineer.  His father built him a bed that had a jungle gym, his mother encouraged him to feel the art at museums, and his siblings would advocate with him in public/private settings.

Throughout his life, Miele had to identify methods of how to gain access to necessary information in course textbooks, in the presentations in the classroom, and in the workplace.  It is a conventional perception that the process of an action commences with the implementation of the action itself, but Miele sees this process as a multi-layer procedure for a person with a disability.  “Before we can do the actual things we want to do, we have to create solutions just to get access to the information or the physical aspects of what we want to do.  As a person with a disability, you don’t just go skiing.  You have to figure out how you are going to adapt skiing to be what you want to do or something fun that you can do.”  To be a “meta maker” is to be an individual who has to bridge a divide between themselves and an action before doing the task that was in mind from the onset.  With personal experience as a blind person and a meta maker in the technology industry, Miele knew that the path of an information accessibility researcher was where he would be able to make the most significant and tangible impact for the community he cares for. Student interns; an Asian American young man holding a white cane, and two young white women stand next to Josh Miele, who also holds his white cane outside of the Smith and Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. Miele believes that the lack of awareness of accessibility and the lack in representation of people with disabilities in the technology industry is a result of low societal expectations.  “The failure comes way before you go in for an interview; it’s in school early on.  I am talking about the failure of the system to provide for people with disabilities.”  In order to create a culture of inclusion, family members and educators must reach youth as young as possible.  It is his belief that teaching students without disabilities about accessible design at the commencement of their education rather than after a product is found to be inaccessible will ensure that there will not be a need to retrofit products and will promote a greater comprehension of disability from the outset.  In conjunction, positive reinforcements and opportunities to explore the realm of technology as a youth will allow people with disabilities to decide for themselves if this industry suits their interests.

This is not to diminish the current enthusiasm and effort put forth by those individuals without disabilities who seek to create innovative inventions that may increase access to crucial information for people with disabilities.  The issue lies when imagination and cultural assumptions lead the production of a novel product in lieu of practical knowledge or conversational interactions with the community.  “Because there is no cultural connection or experience with what that disability entails, they don’t necessarily develop technology that is going to have any relevant impact or usefulness.”  Exposure to the barriers in the built environment as a youth will promote the effective and conscious development of products that are usable and practical. Student interns stand over an office desk as Josh Miele shows them braille maps he created for the Bay Area Rapid Transit System. At this moment, Miele works on the creation of tactile maps of streets across the nation and the subway/metro system in the local area, online accessibility of YouTube videos, and much more at Smith-Kettlewell.  However, his pride lies with the Blind Arduino Project, where youth and adults have the ability to gain hands-on experience on how to utilize an electronics platform to build computerized devices integrating sensors, motors, displays, wireless communications, and a host of other tools.  “It’s not that I want every kid to be a blind tech nerd, but I want every blind kid to have the right to know whether or not they are a tech nerd.”  Joshua Miele strives to use his experience as a meta maker to ensure that future generations of youth with disabilities have minimal gaps to bridge with access to information while simultaneously providing these individuals the tools to become meta makers as well, should the need arise.

Not all people with disabilities need to develop an interest in the field of technology, but it is imperative that everyone has the ability to explore this area of study.  The Students for Access Project strives to capture the experiences of people with disabilities who work in tech and inspire both employers and future techies to push for equitable workplaces.

Interested in more on disability in tech? On Tuesday, August 22nd, from 2-3:30 pm PST the Students for Access will be hosting a free webinar "Beyond Diversity 101: Learning from the Perspectives of People with Disabilities in Tech." To join us, please RSVP. Captioning will be provided. 

Read more from our Disability in Tech series here: