Teaching Profession

Disability Groups Condemn NEA President Over Perceived Slurs

By Christina A. Samuels — November 30, 2015 2 min read
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Parents and disability advocates have taken to Twitter and to Change.org to demand an apology and resignation from the president of the National Education Association over a portion of her remarks—which she later cast as a verbal stumble—at a gala where she received an award as a “progressive champion.”

In her Oct. 27 speech, Lily Eskelsen García offered the audience at the Campaign for America’s Future awards gala a long list of teachers’ activities: “We serve kids a hot meal. We put Band-Aids on boo-boos. We diversify our curriculum instruction to meet the personal individual needs of all of our students—the blind, the hearing-impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically ‘tarded’ and the medically annoying.” Her list continued and ended with cheers and applause from the audience.

The full quote can be heard here, starting around 1:37 into the clip:

The American Association of People with Disabilities pulled out the remarks about the “chronically ‘tarded’ and medically annoying,” saying in a statement released Nov. 29 that her words were insulting and showed disrespect to people with disabilities. “As the nation’s largest labor union, representing over three million teachers, the NEA should know better than to insult students and must do more to be inclusive of all students,” the organization stated.

The National Down Syndrome Society added a statement on Facebook, saying, “These derogatory terms demonstrate a lack of respect and understanding about individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities, and imply that students with disabilities are a burden on educators and the education system.” And the Council for Parent Advocates and Attorneys said the comments provoked “horror, angst and disgust.”

Twitter has also been full of critical comments, including from people who are calling for García’s resignation.

The NEA did not respond Monday to a request for comment. But García has answered the criticism from some bloggers and Tweeters, saying that she was speaking too quickly:

In the comments on the Walkersvillemom blog, written by parent of an adult with Down syndrome, García says:

...to correct the major misunderstanding, in my remarks I mention "chronically tardy" not "chronically retarded." Also, in an attempt at humor I mention students who are "medically annoying" referring to any typical student who is doing something really annoying in class—"medically" meaning "extremely." I understand completely that you do not see humor in my remarks. I also understand that the impact of my words on you hurt and angered you and that surely was not my intent. Good intentions, however, still have impact, and so I apologize for using a phrase that could be so easily misunderstood that it appeared I was referring to medically fragile students. I never have and never will disparage the children I have spent my life serving. I hope you will accept my apology.

Those comments are not enough for some, however:

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.