Images, Words, Identity

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“I heard it on NPR” is an often-spoken truth among my friends, as we tend to listen to our local stations and compare notes. Recently, I “heard on NPR” a story about a bridal boutique in England that put a wedding-dressed mannequin sitting in a wheelchair in their window display. The store itself didn’t seem to think the display was “a big deal.” But a lot of people who saw it disagreed. One woman, who uses a wheelchair, tweeted:

Her tweet went viral as people around the world tweeted and reposted. As the shop’s co-owner said, their display had created “an absolute frenzy and this outpouring of messages on this debate that more shops should follow suit.” Indeed. I expect (and hope) that more shops everywhere will follow the lead of this bridal boutique.


But I was taken with this story because of a serendipitous coincidence: as I was listening to NPR in the background, I was working on a revision of one of my textbooks, The Everyday Writer, and in particular on a section dealing with language and identity. I was working with an illustration that’s been created for the new edition showing a young woman in the foreground at a protest rally—using a wheelchair. The speech bubble above her head says “I am a bilingual woman and a student activist.” I’m asking students to look at the illustration and analyze it for what it says about language and identity—and then asking them to think carefully about what words and images they would choose to illustrate their own identities—and to take a careful look at the words they tend to use to describe the identities of others: what assumptions may underlie those word choices?


With this particular image, I ask students to begin by observing it attentively. Then, make some notes, answering these questions: What is your eye first drawn to, and why? What is in the background of the illustration, and how does the background inform the image in the foreground? How would you describe the mood or atmosphere of the illustration? How does color contribute to establishing that mood? How would you describe the facial expression of the woman in the foreground? Look again at the speech bubbles: what words has the person chosen to describe herself? What do those words suggest about what she identifies with? How might the words differ from what you might have expected, and why? 


So perhaps textbooks will join Britain’s bridal shop in depicting people as people, rather than people with disabilities. If so, I’m very happy to be in their company!

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2588238 by StockSnap, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.