A History of Assistive Vision

  • Serial
Black and white photographic portrait of a close-up of a man's face. He is holding up a smartphone close to his eyes such that it obscures his nose and mouth. His eyes are directed towards the phone's screen. His finders are visible holding the phone on either side and the camera lenses of the phone appear in the bottom right corner of the image. The man's face and hands are 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.

When Alex Lee discovered that an inherited condition was causing sight loss, his life changed profoundly. He also began to explore the array of different assistive technologies available to help blind and visually impaired people read, communicate and find their way around. In this six-part series, Alex dives into the history of assistive technology, from long before computers to the latest AI. He asks why Braille took so long to become popular, how the simple white cane has been hard to improve on, what people might be able to see that machines never will, and who is responsible for the parlous state of audio description in the UK’s cinemas.

About the contributors

Black and white head and shoulders photographic portrait of Alex Lee.

Alex Lee


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.

Black and white head and shoulders portrait of Ian Treherne.

Ian Treherne


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.