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The Blind Leading the Blind: Designing an Inclusive World

April 21, 2016
by Holly J. McDede
Blind people taking a cooking class in a kitchen

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 of 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.

Joshua Miele sitting at a desk
Joshua Miele is devising technologies to expand opportunities for those who can’t see; photo by Holly J. McDede

When he applied to Cal in 1987, however, that wasn’t Miele’s plan. He wasn’t even aware of Berkeley’s storied history. He just wanted to get away from suburban New York and study physics.

“I wanted to spread my little blind wings,” Miele recalls. “I didn’t know anything about the social dynamics of Berkeley. All I knew was that it was a huge campus and it had an element named after it.”

Back then, blind and visually impaired students would spend hours working in a windowless underground room in Moffett Library nicknamed “the Cave.” They would typically study with their “readers”—people who would read books aloud to them while they took meticulous notes in Braille. It was there that Miele had his blind awakening.

“I met awesome blind people who were just kicking ass,” he says. “They were cool about being blind. They were having interesting conversations about it.”

After 18 years of trying to keep low-key about his blindness, he started to embrace it as a cool component of himself. Or, as he puts it, “I basically went to college and got Blind Pride.”

One semester short of finishing his physics degree, he took time off to work for Berkeley Systems, a startup that made the Macintosh computer accessible to blind people. “I realized that I might never be a brilliant physicist, but I would make a much bigger contribution by getting involved in the accessibility world,” Miele says. “I had something to contribute there, and I was smart enough to help guide things in the right direction. It was cool, it was fun, and it was very important to me.”

Cal student Tomás Vega showing off a project
Cal senior Tomás Vega is working on a way to “read” via skin vibrations.

He later returned to UC Berkeley to wrap up his physics degree and earn a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics. His goal: to study hearing and garner inspiration for designing better audio features for computers.

Now, much of his work at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute involves making gadgets and programs talk. Take YouTube, for instance. Of the hundreds of millions of hours of YouTube videos out there, few include audio descriptions. Miele came up with YouDescribe: Now people who sign on to YouDescribe can find the video they want, pause the video, and record their own descriptions of it. Blind people can now find and listen to this growing collection of YouDescribe-enhanced videos in which recorded voices tell them what they can’t see. Among the selections: videos depicting how to make green tea and chocolate waffles, how to explain Donald Trump to kids, and how to interpret guinea pig noises.

“Well, yes, I want blind people to build goofy robots. But I want blind kids to have the same opportunities for science—the same opportunities for learning—as sighted kids.”

Miele, who has black curly hair and skin that still bears the scars left by the acid, lights up when he talks about his Blind Arduino Project. “You know how the maker movement is a big thing now? You know how every 2-year-old is making robots now?” he asks. “So, there’s a lot of ways to make robots, but one of the most popular ways is with a platform called Arduino.”

Arduino is a tiny programmable computer, about the size of a deck of cards, that uses software that allows users to write code that can interact with the world through electronic sensors, lights, and motors. Tinkerers and hackers have used Arduino to make LEDs blink, program robots to move around, and Tweet at coffee pots to get them to make a fresh brew. The operating principle: Through Arduino, blind people gain an affordable tool to make even more accessible technology for themselves.

“So I started this thing called the Blind Arduino Blog, a project for documenting and disseminating ways blind people can work with Arduino independently, and for documenting the types of things blind people might want to build that they can’t find,” Miele explains. He believes that if more blind kids felt included in the maker movement, there would be more blind kids dreaming of being physicists. “I don’t just want blind people to be able to build goofy robots,” Miele says. “Well, yes, I want blind people to build goofy robots. But I want blind kids to have the same opportunities for science—the same opportunities for learning—as sighted kids.”

He’s also concerned with the everyday challenges blind people face just getting around. That’s why he collaborated with the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco to create accessible maps of every BART transit station.

“It’s this kind of accessibility that I get excited about,” Miele says. “It seems basic, and it is. But that’s why it’s exciting, because we don’t have the kind of ready access to basic information we want.”

He discovered that making an accessible map—complete with Braille, large print, and audio—is also really complicated. For the audio element, Miele adapted a LiveScribe smartpen, a pen designed to record audio and notes. He uses it to read off information on the map. When he taps the pen on the map, the pen reads out information, like ticket fares and which buses come to which stop.

Next he designed an accessible periodic table, the kind he never got to see when he studied chemistry in high school. He taps on the square, and the pen reads off the name of an element. He taps again, and this time it’s atomic weight. The more he taps, the more information pours sonically out of the pen. From there, he just kept going—making an accessible sudoku, an accessible eyeball, an accessible nerve.

Map being read by a pen like device for blind people

These days, Lighthouse, the San Francisco nonprofit Miele partnered with to make his maps, has turned into something of a tactile-map-making factory. The Lighthouse produces accessible floor plans for dormitories, and maps of parks, transit systems, and campuses including UC Berkeley.

But Lighthouse CEO Bryan Bashin cautions that although these sophisticated technological breakthroughs are vital, employment prospects for the blind and visually impaired remain grim.

“What I’ve learned is that there are a lot of blind people with a mountain of technology at home [who] go nowhere because it’s necessary but not sufficient,” he says. “What we need as blind people is a sense of the possible. The challenge is to find ways to motivate blind people, beyond putting hunks of iron on their table. How do we install the improbable belief that, yeah, you can go to work, you can support your family, you can be a source of giving to the community as well as receiving?”

That’s why Lighthouse does more than make innovative gadgets. Lighthouse also gives skills training and counseling services, and it’s a place where blind people can meet other blind people.

Bashin knows how important that can be. His vision deteriorated slowly, and it wasn’t until he was legally blind by his sophomore year at UC Berkeley that he began seeking out other blind people. He went on to become a science writer, and mostly didn’t talk about being blind. “I was ashamed of it, because I didn’t have enough role models,” Bashin acknowledges. “I just did my job as a science writer, and tried to ‘pass,’ I often say. Sometimes I did, but often I didn’t.” In 1993, he went to his first Blind Convention, because he heard it would feature technology.

Today he’s hoping that a center of innovation such as the Lighthouse will attract others into a supportive blind community. And the Lighthouse’s potential is about expand, thanks in part to a recent $125 million donation.

It plans to move three blocks down from its current San Francisco location on Van Ness Avenue to Mid-Market next month. The new headquarters will be three floors in an 11-story building, and for now Lighthouse will lease the rest of the space to the city. The headquarters will have a new name—the Lighthouse Center for Excellence—and come with a fitness center, dorms for students, a huge kitchen where students can learn to cook with nonvisual techniques, and a larger store for high-tech gadgetry. He wants that store to go in the back, to lure tech enthusiasts in.

“Blind people who achieve as blind people all know people who know how to overcome self-doubt, discrimination, and ignorance,” Bashin says. “It might take something like what we have at the Lighthouse, a store to get you in the building first.”

So the architectural consultant for the Lighthouse’s new headquarters, Chris Downey, is working on making a building that will make blind people feel that sense of the possible. He’s tall with intense blue eyes and is blind, too—meaning he knows how important good architecture can be, even for people who can’t see.

In fact, he still thinks of himself as a sighted architect. “I imagine things in my mind, but I’m thinking through things in a completely different way,” he said. “There’s more to what you can work with than just what you can see.”

Bryan Bashin with architect Chris Downey
Bryan Bashin with architect Chris Downey; photo courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates

He knew he wanted the new Lighthouse design to feel delightful, not just visually, but sonically, like it was a place where important activities were happening. Through acoustic modeling of the space, visitors can come in and hear others walking down the stairs, engaging in conversation, both above and below. Even the handrail grips you in. “It’s an unusual shape, and can fit a broad range of different hand sizes,” he said. “The idea is that if you’re a blind person and you first grab it, it almost stops you in your tracks.”

In his universal design class at UC Berkeley, Downey teaches his students to think about architecture with all their senses. For example, for their final project, he’s asked them to address the fact that the observation deck of the Campanile—the third-tallest bell-and-clock tower in the world—is not wheelchair accessible. “It’s a landmark, so you can’t just go in there and make it accessible. There’s really nothing you can do to solve that,” he says. So he asked his students to imagine a completely new structure adjacent to the Tower that still respects its historical status, but offers new universal design experiences.

One of Downey’s students, Gregory Huey, is working on a design that calls for shorter walls, or a raised platform, on the tower. He also designed an accessible gathering plaza and pavilion for guests to congregate nearby, complete with tactile signage and audio options. He wants there to be exhibitions in the pavilion with interactive installations providing insight into the history of Berkeley and the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination. This probably won’t happen, but the point is to get Huey thinking about how accessibility can be exciting. “Knowing individuals with disabilities and seeing those not being able to enjoy architectural spaces and experiences has always bothered and frustrated me,” Huey says. “So when I found out the Chris Downey was going to be teaching a universal design course, I was immediately intrigued.”

Downey has made a name for himself as one of the only blind architects in the world. He was fortunate to have people such as Miele and other mentors at Lighthouse to teach him to re-learn his craft.

Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 2000 and is also blind, likewise persevered despite the obstacles—including a Department of Rehabilitation counselor who tried to discourage her from aiming for Berkeley. “She said, ‘Look at these statistics, look at how people fail. If you go to a university, you’re going to drop out, and we don’t want you to suffer that way,” Wai-Yee Kwong remembers. Instead she switched counselors, got a scholarship, and enrolled at Cal.

As the first blind student to study Mandarin at the university, she says she had to persuade the Chinese department that blind students could learn to read Chinese characters. For her statistics course, she demanded the Disabled Students Program on campus purchase a Braille display (a device that lets a blind person read what’s on display on a computer one text line at a time in the form of Braille characters) so she could meticulously read her statistics data. The alternative was to rely on audio.

Blind student with their dog
Ann Wai-Yee Kwong

Initially, she says, the Disabled Students program was reluctant—Braille is actually rarely used today, and only 10 percent of blind Americans can even read Braille. Undaunted, Wai-Yee Kwong wrote a piece for the National Federation of the Blind entitled ‘Is Reading a Privilege?’ in which she argued: “It is crucial that Braille readers be given the same opportunities to read as sighted ones. Reading tactile text is or should be a fundamental right; however, for visually impaired people it has become a rare privilege.” Ultimately, the Disabled Students Program ordered a Braille Display.

Berkeley’s Alternative Media Center, which converts material for visually impaired students and students with print disabilities, such as dyslexia, has seen a huge spike in demand for its services: In the past two years, its output has more than tripled, with 7,430 pieces converted in the past school year. “The numbers and growth rate are utterly astounding. It make me wonder if there is a better way to approach this subject,” Paul Hippolitus, Director of Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program, wrote in an email. Education accessibility consultant Yue-Ting Siu is helping Berkeley develop an online course for faculty to help them better understand what material will be accessible to those who can’t read print. “Hopefully professors will buy into accessibility and just do the right thing,” she says. “They don’t mean to exclude people. I think it’s just ignorance.”

Every year brings new innovations, not only from blind inventors but from sighted ones as well. When Tomás Vega came from Peru to UC Berkeley four years ago to study computer and cognitive science, it was in part because he thought that if he understood the brain better, he could hack it. He’s not blind, but since then he’s been working to design technologies for the blind, like what he calls “Haptic Braille.” It’s a device that allows users to read vibrations on their skin. He’s also helped design an augmented white cane, called SynthSense, that can detect when obstacles, like tree branches hanging overhead, are in the way and convey a better path to users via a vibrating magnetic wrist band.

But of course, challenges remain. Technology still hasn’t come to the rescue when it comes to, say, reading graphs.

Fourth-year Cal geophysics major Newton Nguyen says nothing tech has to offer can translate graphs and charts as well as a person can. For now, he relies on scribes to trace his hand over graphs on a screen so that he can better imagine them. “It’s not the best approach,” he admits, “but for quickly understanding the result, it works.”

Meanwhile, Joshua Miele sits in his office imaging graphs and charts, too. He dreams of what he jokingly calls “the holy Braille”—a not-yet-devised method of relaying graphs to people who can’t simply see them. And he has faith. “It’s just a matter of the right, smart people putting together the right materials together with the right technologies,” he says. “It’ll come.”

CORRECTION: “The National Federation for the Blind” has been changed to “The National Federation of the Blind.”

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