Education Leader Responds to Outrage on Comments Made About Students With Disabilities

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The president of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the United States, has issued a response to the firestorm of criticism she received after comments made about students with special needs during an October speech.

The comments, which came to light after a video of Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s speech went viral, sparked outrage from both parents and advocacy groups.

In the October speech at the Campaign for America’s Future Awards Gala when speaking on what teachers do daily, she said, in part, “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.”

The video of the speech, published to YouTube on Nov. 3, has been viewed more than 1 million times.

On Sunday, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) issued a statement condemning Garcia’s comments.

“AAPD condemns this statement and the disrespect it not only shows to students with disabilities, but all Americans 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. On the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is horribly unfortunate and sadly ironic that we must chastise the President of the NEA for her comments."

On Monday, the National Down Syndrome Society also issued a statement.

"The National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) condemns National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s use of the terms 'chronically tarded' and 'medically annoying' in her recent remarks at the Campaign for America’s Future Awards Gala. 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. While we appreciate President Garcia’s apology and clarification regarding her choice of words in this speech, we would like to open a dialogue with her and NEA on best practices in educating students with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities."

Late Monday, Garcia responded to her critics in a video message that sought to clarify her remarks.

"Epic failure. In my attempt to be clever and funny, I stepped on a very important word and phrase. And I created another phrase I believed was funny but it was insulting and I apologize," Garcia said.

Garcia goes on to say that she intended to use the word tardy as opposed to 'tarded. As far as the phrase "medically annoying," she said she was referring "not to students who are medically ill, or fragile. I've taught those students all my life. I was talking about that student, who, for an example, has an argument with his girlfriend and now is having a very bad day then does everything humanly possible to annoy his teacher."

"The bottom line is, I screwed up and I apologize. Please judge me by my heart, not by my mistakes," Garcia said.