StoriesPart of A history of assistive vision
Part1

Life before assistive technology

Alex Lee was working in his father’s restaurant when he noticed there was something seriously wrong with his vision. Tests would later reveal that an inherited condition was causing sight loss. As his life changed profoundly over the next few months, Alex began to discover the technologies available to help him, and their history.

Words by Alex Lee|photography by Ian Treherne

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Black and white photographic portrait of a man dressed in a black shirt holding up a 50 pence piece to his face, held in his left hand. He is pictured from the chest up, his eyes directed towards the coin. The man's face and hand is spotlit in a small circle of light. He is standing against a black background which means he is surrounded by darkness.
Alex Lee. © Ian Treherne for Wellcome Collection.

One hot, sweaty day in the summer of 2013, I was working behind the counter in my dad’s small Thai restaurant. It was all plastered smiles and big ‘hellos’. But as I opened up the till and felt for the coins inside, holding them up at eye level to try and decipher their value, I knew that something was seriously wrong.

Over the past two weeks, something had been changing in my vision. It wasn’t just a simple prescription change. I knew the sign of needing a new pair of glasses – an inability to see the screen at school, or the slight blurring of a road sign. But this was different. My vision was starting to actually deteriorate. Faces and words were no longer legible. I didn’t know it then, but in a few months’ time, I’d be registered blind.  

I remember being in the hospital, being poked and prodded, needles extracting blood from my veins until test tubes were full, noisy machines scanning my brain. But it wasn’t until late autumn that I was finally diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), receiving confirmation that my life was about to change irrevocably.

An estimated 1 in 50,000 people in the UK have lost their sight to this mitochondrial disease, which robs people of their central vision, frequently affecting those in their early adulthood. For me, adjusting to sight loss would have been impossible without the help of assistive technology.

Eight years on, my life is filled with synthetic voices reading to me at impossible speeds, connecting me to both real and digital worlds. I use virtual-reality goggles to enhance my vision enough for me to be able to watch the TV and go to the cinema. I have smartphone apps that tell me everything from what shop I’m standing in front of, to what denomination of money I’ve got in my hand, to what’s on the menu and what exactly the mail coming through my letterbox says.

Visually impaired people have gained a huge amount of independence in the past 30 years thanks to assistive technology. Most of the tech I use today didn’t exist 20 or even ten years ago. But the digital technology we use today wouldn’t have been created without what went before it.

Black and white photographic portrait of a man dressed in a black shirt holding out a 50 pence piece to his the camera in his right hand. He is pictured from the chest up, his eyes directed towards the camera. The man's face and hand is spotlit in a small circle of light. He is standing against a black background which means he is surrounded by darkness.
Alex Lee. © Ian Treherne for Wellcome Collection.

“As I opened up the till and felt for the coins inside, holding them up at eye level to try and decipher their value, I knew that something was seriously wrong.”

Vision impairment in history

Life progressed slowly for visually impaired people living in the early 19th century. Many visually impaired people were either placed in institutions – sometimes called ‘blind asylums’ in Scotland – or lived on the streets.

People in the asylums and workshops were taught tactile skills. Everything from playing a musical instrument to basket-weaving, brush-making or mattress-stuffing, to things like net-making and sack-printing, but little else. The baskets weaved were sold in local shops. One shop in Dundee was even nicknamed the ‘Blindie Shop’. Those who couldn’t work relied on family support networks or sought out work on the streets.

But visually impaired people didn’t completely lack independence without the assistance of sighted individuals. Iain Hutchison, a disability studies researcher and author of ‘Feeling Our History: The Experience of Blindness and Sight Loss in Edwardian Edinburgh’ (2015), mentions one woman who turned mangles.

“She earned enough money to survive by wheeling a big heavy-duty wringer round the doors,” he says. “Some people would be washing their blankets or whatever and she would go round and put their wet blankets through the mangle. They were big, big heavy rollers.”          

Many visually impaired people were either placed in institutions – sometimes called ‘blind asylums’ in Scotland – or lived on the streets.

Some Victorians were proud of their ability to get around on their own, says Heather Tilley, a lecturer in Victorian Literature at Queen Mary, University of London, who studies the relationship between blindness and literary culture in the Victorian period.

“If you think, in Victorian rural areas, particularly where there was poor light, there was actually an advantage in being able to navigate familiar territory day or night,” she says, although she also notes that there are records of blind people relying on companions and aids as well.

Stories like this are peppered throughout history. Despite not having accessible maps in the palm of his hand, James Holman, a former naval lieutenant who went blind when he was 25, travelled around the world on his own in the early 1800s. Not with a GPS-enabled smartphone in his pocket or by sweeping a white cane on the ground, but with a metal-tipped walking stick that helped him navigate like a dolphin, using echolocation and his four remaining senses. He managed to travel through Russia, Siberia, Italy, France and many more countries.

Today, technology has invaded every part of modern life, meaning we tend to do less work outdoors and more work on computers. Developments in technology have ultimately made the lives of visually impaired people much easier, but the path hasn’t always been straightforward.  

Black and white photographic portrait of a man dressed in a black shirt holding up a 50 pence piece to his face, held in his right hand. He is pictured from the chest up, his eyes directed towards the coin. The man's face and hand is spotlit in a small circle of light. He is standing against a black background which means he is surrounded by darkness.
Alex Lee. © Ian Treherne for Wellcome Collection.

“Over the past two weeks, something had been changing in my vision. I didn’t know it then, but in a few months’ time, I’d be registered blind.”

Legislation and technology

After the end of the First World War, when thousands of British soldiers came home blinded and living in poverty, 250 people in the National League of the Blind marched from Newport, Manchester and Leeds to Trafalgar Square, demanding that rights and welfare for blind and partially sighted people be improved.

Later that year, the Blind Persons Act of 1920 – the world’s first disability-specific legislation – was passed in the UK. It is seen today as a precursor to the 2010 Equality Act, and an inspiration for the disability civil rights movement in the 1970s.

Thanks to years of research, pioneers who paved the way for today’s technology, and the fight for disabled people’s civil rights, we’ve got speech synthesis and text-to-speech, Braille readers and notetakers, new tools to travel with, and new ways of experiencing the world thanks to audio description. One day, self-driving cars could help us get around even more independently.

It’s easy to forget the journey that technology for the blind has gone on to get to this point. Over the next five parts in this series on the history of assistive technology for visually impaired people, we’ll look at the invention of synthesised speech and how it powers visually impaired people’s lives. We’ll look at Braille, its difficult path to acceptance, and its muddied future.

We’ll also look at the digitisation of the white cane, and why it’s being rejected; the fight for equal access to audio description and, of course, the rise of the connected blind world, thanks to apps like Aira and Be My Eyes. But throughout this series, you’ll notice one constant: it’s always blind and partially sighted people who are leading the charge, advocating and developing accessible, assistive technologies.

About the contributors

Photograph of Alex Lee

Alex Lee

(he/him)
Author

Alex is a tech and culture journalist. He is currently tinkering with gadgets and writing about them for the Independent. You may have previously seen his work in the Guardian, Wired and Logic magazine. When he’s not complaining about his struggles with accessibility, you’ll likely find him in a cinema somewhere, attempting to watch the latest science-fiction film.

Photograph of Ian Treherne

Ian Treherne

Photographer

Ian Treherne was born deaf. His degenerative eye condition, which by default naturally cropped the world around him, gave him a unique eye for capturing moments in time. Using photography as a tool, a form of compensation for his lack of sight, Ian is able to utilise the lens of the camera, rather than his own, to sensitively capture the beauty and distortion of the world around him, which he is unable to see. Ian Treherne is an ambassador for the charity Sense, has worked on large projects about the Paralympics with Channel 4 and has been mentored by photographer Rankin.