By Jessica Couloute

On International Women’s Day in 2016, at the Let Girls Learn event, Michelle Obama illustrated the power of education and said: “The ability to read, write, and analyse; the confidence to stand up and demand justice and equality; the qualifications and connections to get your foot in that door and take your seat at that table – all of that starts with education.” As a society, we understand the importance of education, but during her remarks, Obama articulated its magnitude and the true power of knowledge. While we understand that knowledge and education are the pathways to power and socioeconomic stability, we must ask, how does one access this knowledge? How does one tap into this power?

In general, knowledge is perceived as facts, information and skills that are acquired and comprehended through education. It is how we understand the world around us. But it is also widely presumed that to gain knowledge, one must be literate. When referring to literacy, reading and writing come to mind. And while these components remain at the core, we are seeing a shift towards other skills as we witness the evolution of the Digital Age. Since the beginning of this period, literacy has expanded to include more visuals outside of text (e.g., photographs, videos and a combination of images and text) as the distribution of information is becoming increasingly image based. The importance of visual literacy is becoming more and more prevalent, especially as more information platforms centre content around visuals.

According to the World Literacy Foundation (WLF), approximately 1 out of 5 people are illiterate, and about three billion people struggle to read and write at a basic level, which exerts an immeasurable impact on the quality of their personal life. Additionally, WLF states that two-thirds of the illiterate population are women. This is significant because literacy, especially as it relates to women, is a key indicator of the overall well-being of one’s community. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a study that found that a mother’s literacy was more indicative of children’s academic achievements than the neighbourhood income level. Given how significant the repercussions of textual illiteracy are, we must give visual literacy the same level of consideration and examine it through the same lens.

The International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA) defines visual literacy as

“a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.”

Visual literacy is how we understand various dynamics within our culture, and as is the case with textual literacy, without visual literacy, we are unable to participate fully in our communities. In a London-based study “We’re Creative on a Friday Afternoon: Investigating Children’s Perceptions of Their Experience of Design & Technology in Relation to Creativity”, researchers found that students who enrolled in a design and technology class and had creative freedom in how they completed projects were able to engage in their environments and objects in real time, which offered them a new perspective in how to think, helped them draw conclusions connected to other subjects, deepened their understanding of the world and ultimately provided them with a more well-rounded learning experience. Another study, published in the Journal of Visual Literacy, discusses how there is a widespread assumption that youth today are inherently visually literate due to their immersion in our digital society. However, research suggests that by the time students reach post-secondary education, they still lack sufficient visual literacy skills. While the study argues visual literacy is not synonymous with being visually oriented, being oriented in this way is still useful in the development of visual literacy. If we assume that visual literacy goes hand in hand with the ability to use technology, we have to consider disparities in access to technology, especially mobile devices and the Internet.

Presently, 59% of the global population have Internet access, and 45% have access to a smartphone. Unsurprisingly, there are considerable disparities in these figures between developed and developing nations. As we continue to engage in a global society, which congregates primarily in the arena of the Internet, it is important to understand who is actually represented in the conversation. Being visually literate in the 21st century enables us to participate in a global conversation. It offers individuals the opportunity to exchange new perspectives and stories in a way that breaks down the barriers of traditional literacy. A picture is worth a thousand words, but these words aren’t necessarily expressed in a universal language. So when we look to solve literacy challenges worldwide, we must consider visual literacy in tandem with accessibility, especially with women and children in mind.

As members of a global community, we benefit from visual literacy because we can share stories across borders, languages and dialects. By including visuals in the international dialogue, we increase the accessibility of information and ideas. Through accessible communication, we invite members of different communities to join the discussion, to learn and obtain knowledge while sharing their stories. Without textual literacy, individuals are more likely to struggle on a socioeconomic level. As the Digital Age evolves and images continue to be a significant form of communication, visual literacy will continue to grow in significance. In a time when society is more globalised than ever before and information is plentiful and easily accessible, the ability to capture knowledge and step into one’s full potential and power, which is our ability to be civically engaged members of society and take a seat at the table, is dependent on literacy – both visual and textual. By empowering women and children, we are enabling them to be active and knowledgeable participants in the global dialogue. And by doing so, we are empowering their communities and ultimately changing the world we live in for the better.

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