Lainey Feingold interviewed Josh Miele at StoryCorps San Francisco on August 21, 2014 for the Disability Visibility Project.
This is the first of two blog posts. Below are some excerpts from their conversation.
On being blind in elementary school
LF: What was your elementary school experience like?
JM: I was burned when I was four so I grew up, until I was four, as a little sighted kid and then went to as a blind child entering school, went first to kindergarten at a special school for the blind in Brooklyn called the Industrial Home for the Blind which is no longer there but was mainstreamed in first grade. “Mainstreamed” meaning just going to a regular public school with special services for me.
LF: But wait, why was it called the “Industrial Home” did they want to teach you….
JM: Doesn’t that sound Victorian?
LF: Yeah, or how to use tools.
JM: You know that just gets to whole history of blind people and sort of the industrial – I don’t know why it was called the Industrial Home for the Blind but I think basically it probably was founded in the late 19th or early 20th century with the idea of teaching blind people job skills or what are now called job skills but which at that time probably consisted of weaving and broom making and other sort of manual tasks that were thought to be appropriate for blind people at that time. I mean crafts, basket weaving, I mean there are these sort of classic blind jobs, that now we look at and think wow, like, you know I’m a scientist, I know people that are counselors and therapists, that’s the word I was looking for, and engineers and architects. I know blind people in many many jobs. You know 20, 30 and 100 years ago blind people would never have been involved with and now it’s not just being a masseuse or a masseur, which would have been back in the day, would have been a high-end job for a blind person, because sighted people would actually let you touch them. But you know selling pencils, all of that. So the IHB, I don’t quite know the history of the place but that’s where I went to kindergarten.
LF: And then after that you were mainstreamed.
JM: Um-huh. I went to PS 102 in Bay Ridge for first and second grade in Brooklyn and was in a regular sighted kid classroom and it was well supported. I had a Braille teacher. You know she would provide transcribed Braille for my classroom and I would work in Braille and she would transcribe it back into print for the teacher to grade and that’s how it worked. We then moved to Rocklin when I started 3rd grade which is New York suburbia and I went all the way from 3rd grade through high school there with the same Braille teacher, not the same Braille teacher as in Brooklyn, but a Braille teacher named Joan Smith, was my itinerant teacher and she was charged with supporting all of my accessibility needs.
LF: And did she have high expectations for you?
JM: She had very high expectations for me. She was an amazing woman who I served badly at every step. But she loved me and I loved her. But at the same time no blind kid wants this weird, like nobody else had a Braille teacher hanging around with them. I didn’t want to be seen with her you know and she called herself the Stigma. She was like “oh yeah, okay, I’ll walk back here, I’m the Stigma”. She was hilarious and very very dedicated. She had maybe three, four students that she would drive to their different schools and work with them on different days of the week and she transcribed all of my work from 3rd grade through 12th grade and she created tactile graphics for me when I took wood shop in 7th grade, she drew the mechanical drawings that I could do the cutouts that everybody else was doing. When I was in geometry she did the graphics for geometry. When I was in calculus she did the graphics for the calculus.
LF: And when you say she did? What do you mean?
JM: She took a little tracing wheel and a piece of Braille paper and a rubber sheet and would draw with the tracing wheel on the Braille paper backwards. So she would take tracing paper and trace the graphic that she needed to do and then turn it over so that it would be inverse and draw with the tracing wheel on the back of a piece of Braille paper so that I can then turn it over and feel it. Then she would roll into a Braille rider and label it with Braille. I mean just so much time. So much energy, so much effort.
LF: And how do you feel? Because that reminds of the work you’ve done as an adult with tactile maps and having a program to draw maps at the BART stations and the really cool tactile and electronic periodic table that blind people can used.
JM: I’ve always been obsessed with graphics. I’ve always been obsessed with maps and charts, and graphs and I love – you know a picture is worth a 1,000 words – and it’s not just a picture, people talk about graphics and maps and charts. They say “oh it’s so visual”, you know I’m surprised that a blind person can really understand it. But it’s not visual, it’s spatial, it’s a representation of information that puts one thing relative in space to another, that’s what an XY graph is, that’s what a map is, that’s what a bar chart is. It’s just a spatial representation of information and so if you can feel it, you can use it. You can integrate it. And a lot of the time blind people haven’t had access to the kind of resources I did in New York. They didn’t have somebody drawing graphs and maps for them as kids. So they don’t know how to interpret them. And when they do come across tactile maps and graphs, a lot of the time they’re poorly designed, badly executed and it’s no surprise that a blind person would look at a badly done tactile map and say “Wow, I don’t understand this, I don’t really get it” and infer from that “Wow, I don’t really get tactile maps”. But that’s what I try to do with T-Map, the Tactile Map Automated Production System that I developed which was an effort to generate free well designed tactile maps of any place in the country so that it could sort of bootstrap this process of “oh well, you know this chicken and egg thing where kids don’t get maps so kids don’t learn how to use maps, so adults don’t use maps and think that they can’t.” And since adults think that why would we provide free readable tactile maps to kids. So I was trying to break that cycle and although T-Map is still not widely available it’s still exists and exists as a concept. A lot of times what I try to do with the things that I work on is even if I know they’re not going to get turned into products immediately, simply by doing them and showing what’s possible and how it could be done and lighting the fire of imagination in people that say “wow I want that.” I’m hoping to influence the future of consumer demand and product development by maybe somebody who saw T-Map would someday say “you know, I think that we should produce this as a product.”
Lainey Feingold is a disability rights lawyer who works primarily with the blind and visually impaired community on technology and information access issues.
Joshua A. Miele is the founder and director of the Video Description Research and Development Center. He is also the Associate Director at The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. At SKI his work focuses on the research and development of innovative approaches to information accessibility for blind and visually-impaired consumers.