Amazon com: How a blind Amazon researcher defends customers with disabilities

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Amazon’s leading accessibility researcher explains how he helps make devices more inclusive.

For millions of disabled Amazon customers, even simple accessibility features make a big difference.

“Anything that makes someone’s life a little better is exciting for me,” said Josh Miele. “Everything Amazon does has an impact on a huge number of people. ”

Photo by Stephen Lam / AMAZON

Miele in her home office in Berkeley, California.

Photo by Stephen Lam / AMAZON

Josh Miele, Principal Accessibility Researcher at Amazon Lab126, works in his home office

Miele, Principal Accessibility Researcher, is part of the Amazon team that brings these features to life by innovating on behalf of customers to make products more accessible.

Miele is an accessibility consultant whose main job is to help Amazon develop things like tablets, TVs and Alexa-enabled devices that are accessible to people with disabilities.

“Because I am blind, and because I have spent most of my career designing and developing accessibility tools for people who are blind, this is one of the main areas I focus on,” did he declare. “But I also make sure that we do what we need to do to design our tools for everyone, whether or not they have a disability, and whether or not they are visually impaired.”

From university to Amazonia

Miele came to Amazon after spending more than 20 years in academia. In his previous role, he prototyped, researched and developed advanced information technology for people with visual impairments.

“I was in a nonprofit, an accessibility think tank,” he said. “I loved my job. I loved what I was doing, but wanted to have more impact and wanted to try something new, challenging and exciting. Amazon was definitely all of that.”

While the move to Amazon ultimately seemed like a natural step, Miele was initially cautious as he envisioned the transition from academia to the tech space.

“I was very selective about the idea of ​​getting into technology. There were some opportunities that presented themselves, but they certainly wouldn’t have been an improvement for me.” The opportunity to grow as a leader was great, and he noted that “there are very few people with disabilities in accessibility leadership roles in other companies.”

Innovate at Amazon

Since starting out at Amazon almost two years ago, Miele has worked on numerous projects that have undoubtedly impacted the lives of millions of customers. While some of them include technological wonders like “Show and tell” for Alexaand Braille screen capture on Fire tablets, one of the solutions he’s most proud of doesn’t involve complex technology.

Photo by Stephen Lam / AMAZON

A product image of the Braille keyboard overlay available for the AmazonBasics microwave.

A product image of the Braille keyboard overlay available for the AmazonBasics microwave.

A product image of the Braille keyboard overlay available for the AmazonBasics microwave.

“I helped design the touch overlay on Amazon Smart ovenand microwave, and I am very happy with it because it is such a great, inexpensive and practical solution to a problem that blind people face every day. People who are blind have always put their own little labels on their microwaves, but this is the first time that a smart oven and microwave designed for consumer use has also been offered with the option of labels in the microwave. braille – not talking products or “blind” products. . These are only store-bought products, but we carry Braille labels with them. ”

“Not all solutions need to be super smart and high tech. They just need to work and they need to be practical.”

Building a more accessible world

Miele and his colleagues’ work on accessibility is an important step in the process of building a more inclusive world, but he believes accessible technology is only part of a much bigger picture. .

“Technology is a secondary spectacle. What we really want is for disability to be accepted, normalized and planned. So it’s not just a question of “Will my tablet be accessible when I buy it?” It is, “Is my university going to have systems in place for me when I go to university? Is the accreditation course that I am going to have material in a form that I am taking?” can I use? Will the dating app I want to use make sense to me without pictures? ”

Miele stresses that technology is not the only solution to building a more inclusive world. Real change starts when we rethink how we think about accessibility.

“If we can change the way we think about disability, ableism and inclusion, technology will follow. There is nothing more remarkable that can be done with artificial intelligence or technology than transforming the way we think about disability as a culture. ”

The process of making an accessible product
Much like Amazon, Miele said its process of building accessible features for products starts with customer needs and works backwards. “The first question is always: what experience are we trying to make accessible and for whom are we trying to make it accessible? “”

Miele noted that it is ideal to make all products accessible to everyone from the start. One approach he takes is to create multiple solutions that the customer can turn on and off.

“Customer choice is one of our most important principles at Amazon,” said Miele. “This also applies to accessibility. Rather than saying, ‘If you’re blind this is how you’re going to do things,’ you better say, ‘We have a bunch of different things that might make it easier for you. the task of experiencing X as Blind. It’s up to you to choose which ones you want and how you use them. ‘”

Beyond devices

The opportunity to positively impact the lives of Amazon customers has been an important part of Miele’s move into the business, but the inclusion of disabled employees by the business has also played a role in its move. decision.

Miele uses a refreshing braille display in her home office.

Photo by Stephen Lam / AMAZON

PwD, or people with disabilities, is an internal affinity groupwhich serves as a voice for Amazon employees with disabilities, focusing on disability inclusion. Miele actively participates in the Bay Area chapter.

“I wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming here without the fact that we very clearly have a strong and well-developed disability culture within Amazon,” he said. “The fact that there was Amazon PwD and that Amazon has a lot of awareness of disability, and not just accessibility, but the policy of disability reassured me that I would be comfortable here.”

Outside of Amazon, Miele launched a core group called the Blind Arduino Project, a series of online resources and educational workshops that teach blind people how to work independently with electronics and build hardware peripherals. . Miele said her work with this project is about helping blind people create the tools they need to do what they want to do.

On what drives his work at Amazon and beyond, Miele said, “All I want is for people to be able to go on and do the things they want to do without unnecessary hitches or hitches. the whole point – to try to do so that the experience of disabled and non-disabled people is reasonably parallel. So that disabled people can do, achieve and enjoy the things that are done and achieved and enjoyed by non-disabled people. ”


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