Visual Rhetoric & Disability on Display

With a degree in Professional Writing and Editing, I have a fair amount of background knowledge of visual rhetoric. Within this week’s readings, I saw two distinct threads emerging within this focus of the visual: sensory images and perceptual images.

"Color Theory Quick Reference Poster" via

"Color Theory Quick Reference Poster" via Paper Leaf Design

[If you click on this image, it will link you to the Paper Leaf Design website, where you can see a larger image of the poster and also one that considers design factors like value, space, and size.]

In terms of sensory images, I’m referencing the readings about CSS and color theory and how images—specifically design and colors—impact how we react and respond to a particular text. The CSS Zen Garden website demonstrates how the exact same textual information can be represented differently through visual design, eliciting different emotions: calm, passion, energy, etc. Likewise, Chapman’s article on color theory demonstrates the different considerations of warm, cool, and neutral colors, and how different colors may work better in different contexts depending on both our purposes and our audiences. For example, if we design something that is meant to calm our viewers, we don’t want a page of reds and oranges. And although I think these sensory images are important to consider, I also think it’s important to consider that color is contextual—for example, I find red to be a warm, calming color. Also, in terms of visual design, technical considerations like typography, white space, tables, and alt-text are equally as important for making an accessible experience for diverse viewers. Even though I could geek out for a while on this content, I was really drawn to the readings that discussed perceptual images.

First, Anne Marie Seward Barry provides us with a technical (biological) understanding of perceptions and images. Seward argues that even when we think we are seeing the world for what it truly is, our brains and eyes consult with our other senses and memories to give us a final “image” of the world (15). That is, “perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves” (16). Now, this might not be news to anyone in this class, particularly since we read that chapter by Sousa long ago who explained how perceptual filtering occurs. However, Barry argues that even though we may know that there is no 1-to-1 connection between visual image and mental image, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that there is. This is because visual images are so direct, so holistic, that it’s easy to think that what we see is what there is. Barry emphasizes this when placing importance on perceptual image as something that shapes our identities and allows us to communicate with others (102). This importance, which I think is tied to the difficulty of convincing ourselves to believe something other than “seeing is believing,” is what drives the heart of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s argument, too.

“In the Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography,” Garland-Thomson writes, “The history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased” (56). This sense of display, of spectator/spectacle (56) is highlighted through photography:

Popular photography catapults disability into the public sphere as a highly mediated image shorn from interactions with actual people with disabilities. Photography’s immediacy, claim to truth, and wide circulation calcifies the interpretations of disability embedded in the images, at once shaping and registering the public perception of disability. (58)

The value we place on the image, circulated through photography, influences how we individually and collectively think or respond to images of disability. To look at this more closely, Garland-Thomson examines four visual rhetorics of disability: the wondrous, the sentimental, the exotic, and the realistic (58).

  • Wondrous: This genre focuses on physical differences in order to elicit amazement, awe, admiration, and—more recently—sentimentality for the “courageous overcomer” (61).
  • Sentimental: This genre also focuses on physical differences but in an attempt to elicit sympathy, charity, pity, or inspiration (63).
  • Exotic: This genre positions disabled figures as unfamiliar, distant, sensationalized, eroticized, or entertaining (65). And though I think we could all agree that exoticizing or fetishizing groups of people (re: Orientalism) is a problematic portrayal, this genre’s one redeeming quality is its goal to disrupt the “asexual, vulnerable, courageous image of disability that charity rhetoric has so firmly implanted” (66).
  • Realistic: This last genre attempts to regularize the disabled figure to diminish points of difference. Garland-Thomson writes that “realist disability photography is the rhetoric of equality,” (69) as it attempts to position images of disability as familiar and mundane. Understanding how images create or dispel disability as a system of exclusions and prejudices is a move toward the process of dismantling the institutional, attitudinal, legislative, economic, and architectural barriers that keep people with disabilities from full participation in society. 75

With these different visual rhetorics of disability, we gain a better sense of the power of the image. Though we end on realist disability photography, there is a long tradition of images of disability that seek to exacerbate difference. Going back to Barry, this photographic tradition has had plenty of time to influence collective cultural perceptions of disability. And as Garland-Thomson points out, sentimental images still circulate widely, particularly with connection to material consumption.

One video I kept thinking about during these readings is the “Closer to Home” video created and sponsored by Autism Speaks and the Ad Council. If you haven’t seen it, it’s truly a horrifying example of the power of visual image. In 30 seconds, they manage to create a visual that induces fear of autism, that it may “happen” to any one of us when we least expect it. As the man speaking continues to “morph” into an older version of himself, autism simultaneously becomes closer and closer to him. I think the message is disgusting, but it’s certainly a powerful example of visual rhetoric and how image can work to persuade people to think/act.

The readings also reminded me of my own experiences teaching visual rhetoric. I teach argument-based writing and when we talk about pathos, the emotional appeal, I always bring in ads. Organizations that I consistently use materials from are Operation Smile and Smile Train because the mail they send—images of children with cleft palates—creates an emotional, visual argument with a single glance. Often, there is the image of the child with a cleft palate crying, juxtaposed with a picture of a child who has been “fixed” by surgery and is now smiling. Here, we engage in the culture of staring Garland-Thomson talks about, but, if we decide to donate, we also participate in the capitalist culture of (literally) buying into sentimental images of disability. I don’t have an issue with these organizations, per se, but I do think it’s interesting how organizations use these images (devoid of individual, cultural, or temporal/spatial contexts) to rhetorically sell disability as something that we, as donators, can cure. The power of these images also speaks back to Garland-Thomson’s point about obsession: “As a culture, we are at once obsessed with an intensely conflicted about the disabled body” (57).

I’m thinking that the Garland-Thomson chapter would be perfect to share with my students: not only to disrupt their own understandings and media constructions of dis/ability, but also to open a discussion about the importance of visual images as a medium that constructs and distributes knowledge.



Barry, Anne Marie Seward. Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1997. Print.

Chapman, Cameron. “Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color.” Smashing Magazine. 28 Jan. 2010. Web.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. NY: MLA, 2002. 56-75. Print.

Zen Garden: The Beauty of CSS Design. David Shea. 2012. Web.