The problem with “Autistic Gahanna teen revels in day of Air National Guard experiences” in the Columbus Dispatch

Early on Friday morning, the Columbus Dispatch posted a story called “Autistic Gahanna teen revels in day of Air National Guard experiences,” written by features writer Ken Gordon. It aims to fill a staple of local papers — human interest feature stories — with a day in the life piece of a 15-year-old getting a day to experience something he has passion for. As the title indicates— and we’ll get to a minute — the subject of the story is a person with a disability.

The paper, and Gordon, deserve for credit for trying to highlight someone who isn’t considered normal. People with disabilities are under represented in media and the biggest paper in Ohio covering a teen with disabilities is a big deal and the Dispatch is a paper with a solid track record covering disability issues. The problem is that it’s done insensitively and without much thought about the person the story is about.

The problems start with the article title itself. “Autistic Gahanna teen” is a crude way to refer to a human who has a name: Chase Fulmer. One would hope it is not an attempt at getting a good SEO score. It also does not use people first language — which I know all not all people use — which you can find a good definition of here. A simple change and rewording to show that Chase is person first would be a good place to start fixing this story; something like “Local teen gets aerial experience” would have worked just fine — and been in line with what is used for a teen without disabilities.

The story turns to the beginning of Chase’s day. Here’s Gordon’s first bit:

From the moment he arrived at the base, Fulmer’s eyes were alight with joy. Presented with a series of surprises throughout the morning — from the personalized green flight suit he was given to wear, to the chance to sit in the cockpit of a KC-135 refueling tanker — he couldn’t contain his glee.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed more than once. “Oh, wow!”

This is the story’s first description of Chase besides the a very vague line that indicates that he’s on the autism spectrum. The way Gordon describes Chase — who, again, is 15 — as if he’s a young child. There’s no chance to give him a chance to quote or offer a real explanation of what the experience is like for him. It’s all observation and simple observation at that. Almost like it’s a small child opening gifts on Christmas.

Then, the story turns turns to Chase’s mother. Instead of having Chase describe his interest in planes and in the Air Force, his mom does it for him. Would any other 15 year old want their mother to speak for them and explain what their interests are? No. So why doesn’t Chase get that opportunity? Maybe Chase’s mom said no, but that’s not clear and should have been made so in some way.

Then, Gordon drops in this graph:

Chase has a particular fascination with plane marshaling — using hand signals and wands to direct pilots where to taxi. For Christmas last year, his mother bought him a set of wands, she said, “and now sometimes he directs me into the garage.”

Again, his mom speaks for him. And instead of asking Chase about plane marshaling, Gordon uses a line that just paints Chase’s interest as some quirky. trivial thing he does at home. Would this have been done for a student without disabilities who attended this event? My guess is no. And, again, it paints Chase as a young child and not as the teenager he is.

Then, there’s a section about a plane tour and Chase interacting with the flight crew. There are no quotes from Chase — again, Gordon chooses to have his mother speak for him:

“It’s an amazing day,” Mrs. Fulmer said. “To come here and watch him, it’s priceless. I’m so excited and happy. He’ll talk about this for weeks — years.”
Turner said her cheeks hurt from smiling so much, and she thought the shadowing served its purpose.
“It makes it more real to him,” she said. “He’s going to be able to find a place in aviation doing something when he gets older — something he loves. What a meaningful experience for him.”

Gordon then ends the story with this:

Sitting down to a lunch of pizza (from Flyers, of course), Chase expressed his satisfaction with the visit.
“Everyone was great,” he said.
Told that he could keep his flight suit, Chase beamed again.
“Awwww!,” he said. “I’m keeping it!”

Again, the description here paints Chase as a child who is doing cute, fun things. He is not treated as a teenager who got to experience a passion or get a look at what his future career could be like. Instead, a 15-year-old is written about as if he’s four years old. The story treats Chase’s experience like it’s just some cute thing that we should all feel happy about because this makes this kid say “awww.” And that’s a bullshit way to write about a real person. Little, easy tweaks like using people first language, quoting Chase and writing him like he’s a teenager who just happens to have a disability are easy, doable fixes.

In the story, there is a small bit about a program Chase could get involved in. Why not come back to that? Why not explore that more?

And how Chase is depicted throughout this story raises questions about Gordon’s reporting. One of two things seems possible: 1) Gordon didn’t really interact with Chase and interview him like he’s any other subject or 2) he did and decided that what Chase said wasn’t smart enough to warrant use, so he had his mother speak for him. Both are problematic.

Again, this story does attempt to highlight a difference experience; Gordon deserves credit for wanting to do this. But instead of empowering Chase and treating him like a person, it treats him like a child. Not quoting him takes away his agency as a person, which any other source certainly would have been given. Chase deserves better — he deserves to written about like he’s person.

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