Joshua Miele: Inspiration from an Unthinkable Crime

Joshua Miele's sight was stolen from him when he was a child. Forty years later, he's giving the blind a bright future.

By Wendell Jamieson from the New York Times

Jim Wilson/New York Times/Redux

After the attack,Basilio Bousa was arrested and charged with first-degree assault. He said that he heard voices and that people were following him. He was given a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and was treated at a psychiatric hospital until he was deemed ready to stand trial. Josh, then seven, testified. But in the end, Basilio was found not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered to undergo more treatment. Eventually, the Bousas moved to Florida. The bodega closed. Basilio died in 1992, after getting emphysema. His sister, Carmen, said he smoked continually and obsessively in his last years and in moments of lucidity was horrified by what he had done. His parents died around the same time.

“Nothing was ever the same after that day,” she said. “This thing destroyed my family.”

When Josh-or, to give his full name, Joshua A. Miele—and I first met for coffee, he was in New York City to lead a panel discussion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about improving the museum experience for blind people. His dad still lives in Park Slope, as do his sister, Julia, now Julia Miele Rodas and a professor at Bronx Community College who teaches and writes about disability in literature, and his brother, Jean, a photographer.

Before we met in fall 2012, I was a little nervous: I wondered how I would react to his appearance. But I found it less off-putting than fascinating. His intelligence and sense of humor blazed through, and he quickly put me at ease.

Today Josh lives in Berkeley, California, on a beautiful block of cottages built in the 1920s, with his wife, Liz, and their children, Benjamin, ten, and Vivien, seven. By the time I went to their house for dinner, I had ceased being conscious of any physical difference between us.

Josh has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a PhD in psychoacoustics from the University of California, Berkeley. As an undergraduate, he worked for the technology company Berkeley Systems on software to help blind people navigate graphics-based computer programs. He developed software for the Mars Observer for NASA. He is the president of the board of directors of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. He plays bass in a band. And he works as an associate scientist at the nonprofit Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. “I’d like to be as famous as the next person would, but I want to be famous for the right reasons, for the work I’ve done and not for some stupid thing that happened to me 40 years ago,” Josh said.

He has helped develop tactile-Braille maps of every station of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system, exquisite creations with raised lines of plastic and Braille labels. The maps also elegantly convey information via an audio smartpen. Josh’s enthusiasm for the Braille maps is infectious, but it’s nothing like the way his voice goes up an octave as he describes his latest project, a cloud-based software program, the Descriptive Video Exchange, that, in theory, will let someone narrate a video or movie and describe what they see for those who can’t.

Josh remembers the day he was burned with precise detail. He remembers riding in the helicopter and making the nurses at McGuire laugh. He remembers his time at Brooke as a horror show: He never knew when a new soldier would be moved into the cot next to him because the previous one had died. And he remembers those days when it was just him and Julia ranging around Park Slope, a little amazed, as she was, that they had had so much freedom.

His perception of himself as being blind has shifted over the years, from not identifying with those who had no sight to becoming aggressively proud of his blindness. He has tried to bring along his parents and siblings on this journey, with mixed success. “In those early days of being overly cool with being blind, I said to my father, ‘Dad, c’mon, when are you going to get over it? I am who I am.’ He was surprised, and he said, ‘You know, I’m never going to get over it.’ ”

It was only when Josh had his own children that he realized what this experience must have been like for his parents. He better appreciates his father’s never-wavering optimism, his sister and brother’s protectiveness, and how his mother told him again and again that he could do anything a sighted person could, even some things that they couldn’t, like touching priceless art in museums.

“I never doubted that it was all going to work out,” he said. “It was a foregone conclusion that it was going to be OK.”

Jim Wilson/New York Times/Redux

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