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This researcher builds ‘cool stuff for blind people.’ He’s also trying to help transform society

PBS News

26th October 2022

This researcher builds ‘cool stuff for blind people.He’s also trying to help transform society

The world is studded with tools to navigate life, but those resources – from the schedule posted at your local bus stop to the cellphone in your pocket – aren’t always accessible for people with disabilities. They may be forced to spend extra time, energy or money to access the same information or experiences as non-disabled people. Inventor Joshua Miele says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“The fact that our built environment doesn’t take disability into account and accommodate for it, that’s not because we can’t do it,” said Miele, who has emphasized this idea across his decadeslong career as a technological innovator. Instead, he said, it’s the result of “inherent ableism,” or the many different forms of discrimination that people with disabilities face, “in the way our systems are designed.”

An estimated one in four adults in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inaccessibility can pose steep barriers when it comes to accessing opportunities like employment and education — the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is around twice that of those who don’t have disabilities.

There’s also some evidence of a persistent digital divide between those who do and do not have a disability. That’s according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey that concluded that Americans with a disability were less likely to own a smartphone or computer. Although the survey didn’t tackle the precise reasons behind that divide, we know that unequal access to digital information can significantly disadvantage those who grapple with it.

Removing barriers from experiences across the board that are historically inaccessible — like the process of setting up a new TV or tablet purchased off the shelf, for example — is key to Miele’s mission.

“Building cool stuff for blind people is great and fun and I love it,” he said. “But making everyday necessities accessible and usable by blind people and people with other disabilities — that’s how you transform societies.”

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