Sunday, March 3, 2013

Triumphing over tragedy



The victim was named Josh Miele. He was 4. On that day, Oct. 5, 1973, he was playing in the backyard of his family’s house on President Street while his mother, Isabella, cooked in the kitchen. The doorbell rang, and Josh sprinted to get it.

Standing on the other side of the heavy iron gate beneath the stoop was Basilio Bousa, 24, who lived next door. ...

My mother came into the kitchen that day or the next, her hands shaking. ... “This little boy on President Street answered the door, and this crazy man poured acid on his head.” ...

Josh was burned over 17 percent of his body, with 11 percent third-degree burns, mostly to his face. Colonel Pruitt said his chief goal was to save the boy’s sight. But he knew right away that this was hopeless.

“He had these terrible injuries to his eyes,” he said. “The globes had been irreparably injured. They were totally collapsed.” ...

Many of his features were gone, and what was left was roughly scarred. ...

Josh Miele lives today in Berkeley, Calif., on a beautiful block of 1920s cottages, with his wife, Liz, and their children, Benjamin, 10, and Vivien, 7. ...

Josh has a degree in physics and a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics from the University of California at Berkeley. He took several breaks, years long, while getting his undergraduate degree, and worked full time for the technology company Berkeley Systems on software to help blind people navigate graphics-based computer programs.

He worked for NASA on software for the Mars Observer. 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 Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, a nonprofit research center. “It’s not that I don’t want to be written about,” he said. “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.”

He has helped develop tactile-Braille maps of every station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, exquisite things with raised lines of plastic and Braille labels. They elegantly lay out information that can be heard by using an audio smart pen.

His enthusiasm for the Braille maps is infectious, but it’s nothing like the way his voice goes up when he describes his latest project, a cloud-based software program, the Descriptive Video Exchange, that in theory will let anyone narrate any video or movie to describe what they see for those who can’t. It’s a kind of crowd-sourced service that would allow, for example, a Trekkie to describe a “Star Trek” episode in a way that other devotees would appreciate. The first version, out this month, will work for any video on YouTube.
--Wendell Jackson, NYT, on putting your own struggles in perspective