Today in Journalism: You Used the Wrong Lede

In Houston, an autistic student is being denied accommodations and his parents took the school district to court to fight. However, they ran out of money and were forced to drop the suit. The student, Chapuka Chibuogwu, remains at home, not receiving an education, because his parents didn’t have the financial clout to pursue his legal rights. This is a story that plays out in communities across the United States every day, with school districts pouring money into fighting suits filed by people who are only asking for the accommodations they are entitled to under the law.

Enter the media, which decides to frame this case in a number of, shall we say, interesting ways. Chibuogwu’s parents are immigrants, and there’s a heavy focus on the ‘broken dreams’ narrative going on here, with a side of ‘all immigrants can succeed if they try hard enough’:

Dreams brought Kenneth Chibuogwu to America and in time determination brought many of those aspirations within reach.

“I worked hard. I came to this country with nothing,” says Kenneth.

This is a common element I see in stories about problems immigrants encounter in the United States. There’s a myth here that this country welcomes ‘the right kind’ of immigrants, people who work hard and keep quiet, and these stories frame problems as simply personally unfair, rather than as evidence of more systemic issues. They remind immigrants that they just need to try and they will succeed in the United States, since obviously things like racism don’t present any obstacles at all to members of the immigrant community. These stories present the United States as a fundamentally fair, free place, as the pinnacle of human achievement, and makes sure to grab pull quotes to reinforce this:

“There was nothing I could do but cry because I was so shocked that such a thing could go on in this country,” added Neka [Chibuogwu’s mother] of the repeated conferences with Alief administrators ending in stalemate.

In this case, the school district turned around to sue the parents to demand repayment of the legal expenses it incurred fighting the original suit, and when it lost, it appealed. This isn’t personally unfair. This isn’t about broken dreams. This is evidence of a systemic problem. When a school district is so opposed to accommodating students that it retaliates with countersuits when people attempt to get the district to comply with the law, that’s indicative of deep, sustained ableism.

And, of course, this article includes lines like ‘…a child who will spend each and every day of his life challenged with autism.’ Never is Chpauka Chibuogwu himself represented, except as a shadowy figure at the fringes of the story. Interviews with both parents are present, but he is firmly relegated to the sidelines.

This quote is illuminating:

“What they are trying to do is send a chill down parent’s spine about advocating for their children,” says Louis Geigerman, president of the Texas Organization of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates.

Note that Geigerman doesn’t say ‘this case is being used to threaten disabled students who need accommodations.’ Not ‘this case is designed to send a clear message that disabled students are not deserving of accommodations,’ not ‘the fact that this school district is fighting this hard to deny accommodations is illustrative of some serious problems with our education system.’ No. It’s about the parents.

Now, obviously, a child being denied accommodations in school is probably going to have trouble self-advocating, for a variety of reasons, ranging from ageist attitudes to perhaps not having access to information about self-advocacy to being around people who refuse to communicate on the student’s terms. So, clearly, parents play an important role in securing accommodations for disabled children and in forcing school districts to comply with the law. However, the complete erasure of the student in this case, and in most cases like it, is really frustrating. It’s a reminder that people with disabilities are defined by the people around them, rather than existing as individuals.

The only direct reference to the student is this editorial line thrown in at the end of the story:

As for Chuka, he’s now fourteen, attends no school and for five years hasn’t received a single minute of the free and appropriate public education that is his right.

That should be the centre of the story. The denial of education to the student should be the focus. The fact that the school district is violating the law should be the focus. Persecuting his parents with lawsuits is definitely part of the story, and it’s an important part, since the decision to attack his parents for fighting for accommodations is illustrative of the way the district views disabled students, but the story isn’t framed that way. The story is framed as a hardship for the parents, with the student as an afterthought. ‘As for…’ is the line you use when you are making a throwaway comment. This student is not a throwaway.

1 Comment

  1. I just finished reading the original article. Here’s how it ends:

    “Their child, his parents insist, has been thoroughly left behind.”

    And the writer of the article has done just the same thing. How ironic.