Joshua Miele has been blind ever since a violent acid attack took away his vision before his 5th birthday. But he says he no longer spends time wishing he could see. Instead, from his office at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, he dreams up new technologies for the blind, and helps turn those visions into reality: maps that can talk, YouTube videos that can speak, electronic gloves that can text.
As is true for many blind people, his iPhone has become as vital to navigation as his cane. These days, anyone with an iPhone can use VoiceOver to read texts on a touch-screen out loud or use voice commands to ask Siri, a personal assistant program, to send messages or get directions to the nearest sushi bar. An app is capable of telling visually impaired people what color pants they’re wearing; another tells then how much money is in their wallets.
Yet despite the fact that the blind and visually impaired can now navigate more efficiently than ever before, their unemployment rate is still at 62 percent, according to the National Federation for the Blind. In other words, among all adults actively looking for work, only about 2 out of 5 have jobs. A community of blind technologists around the Bay Area are out to improve not only those employment numbers, but also the quality of life for people who share their situation. Many, like Miele, passed through UC Berkeley and—during their time at the first university in the country to offer a student-led program for disabled students, in a city that helped pioneer the Disability Rights Movement—they gained a new sense of inspiration and empowerment, and the technical skills to help enhance the lives of other people with sight challenges.