Using Visual Literacy to Help Adolescents Understand How Images Influence Their Lives

By Zambo, DebM | Teaching Exceptional Children, July/August 2009 | Go to article overview
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Using Visual Literacy to Help Adolescents Understand How Images Influence Their Lives


Zambo, DebM, Teaching Exceptional Children


One day when Charlie (a pseudonym) was sitting in his wheelchair he heard several of his peers making mean comments about his looks. Incidents like this occurred often in Charlie's life and he typically sat quietly and accepted them. Like many adolescents with physical disabilities, Charlie thought his peers were right. He believed that because he was in a wheelchair and did not look or behave a certain way he deserved to be rejected. Charlie, like the peers who taunted him, let media images of movie stars, models, and athletes determine standards of beauty and ability for him.

Scenes like this are enacted every day in schools across our country and abroad. Students with physical disabilities face challenges because of the way they look, communicate, or behave. What children see - the visual - is often central to what they think, and in today's world the thinking of adolescents is being influenced by images more than ever before (Janks, 2000; New London Group, 2000). Both still and moving images are capturing the attention of adolescents and teaching them many things (Rose, 2007) . Images teach adolescents about the world and how others experience life. But images can encourage harmful thoughts. Adolescents use images of movie stars, models, and athletes to determine standards of beauty for themselves and decide who will make a good friend (Safire, 2000).

This article provides a strategy educators can use to teach adolescents about visual literacy, or how to read images and think critically about what they see. This strategy is designed for students both without and with physical disabilities. Students without disabilities are targeted because they often use images to set standards of beauty for themselves and their peers, including those with disabilities. Students with physical disabilities (e.g., cerebral palsy, seizures, muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injury, ambulatory problems, etc.) are targeted because they, like Charlie in the opening scenario, often feel the injustice images promote.

Adolescents' thinking. Social Development, and Images

Adolescence, more than any other phase in development, is the time when individuals focus on looks and compare themselves to others. Nowhere is this more evident than in the friendships they form (Lynne, Graber, Nichols, Brooks-Gunn, & Botvin, 2007). Adolescents choose their friends based on a number of factors such as sociability, values, and interests; but just as often, they choose their friends based on their appearance or physical prowess. No matter how much educators and others would like to think otherwise, attractive and athletic adolescents are typically more popular with their peers (Abound & Mendelson, 1998). One reason posed for this is the images they see around them in their world (Safire, 2000). In today's media-driven culture, images of movie stars, models, and athletes are all around.

The benefits of physical attractiveness carry over into students' perceptions of personality. When adolescents see attractive individuals they tend to believe they have more positive traits like friendliness, competence, and intelligence (Lynne et al., 2007). The opposite is also true when adolescents look different, especially when they have a physical disability like Charlie. Peers come to believe they are less capable or less able to be a friend. This distorted way of thinking causes students without physical disabilities to miss out on potential friendships with individuals who are perfectly willing and able to be their friend (Abound & Mendelson, 1998; Hardman, Drew, & Eagan, 2006). It also causes students with physical disabilities to be excluded because their peers are being influenced by unrealistic views of beauty. Instead of thinking critically about images and the social and cultural forces that surround them, adolescents are rejecting peers simply because they do not look like the movie stars or athletes images contain.

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