WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2010— -- White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's verbal indiscretion -- referring to some liberal activists as "f**king retarded" -- has shined a spotlight on just how pervasive the R-word is in American conversation, and how offensive it can be for millions of Americans.
Emanuel apologized to members of the disabilities rights community this afternoon at the White House for comments he made during a closed-door meeting last August but not reported until last week by The Wall Street Journal.
The incident reignited a nationwide debate and even spurred a call for his resignation by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose son has Down's syndrome.
Advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities -- the preferred terms to describe individuals with these impairments -- said they aren't surprised by Emanuel's use of the epithet since the word is regularly used in a negative way to refer to things that are "different" or "not the norm."
But Kirsten Seckler, spokeswoman for the Special Olympics, told ABC News that people need to realize the word packs a punch even if it's not meant that way. The group is leading the charge to eliminate the term in casual conversation with its Spread the Word to End the Word campaign at www.r-word.org.
"We aren't trying to ban a word," said Seckler, "but the pejorative in casual use -- especially used by kids in schools and in the classroom -- is isolating and it hurts."
"People think, 'Well, I'm not directing it to a person with intellectual disabilities' but that transcends and has deeper meaning to people who have spent their lives trying to fight the civil rights challenge of being accepted and conceived as equal," she said.
Emanuel was quoted in the Journal last week making the comment during an August meeting with some liberal activists who were threatening to run TV ads against conservative Democrats hesitant to embrace President Obama's approach to health care reform. "F**king retarded," was his response to the plan, witnesses told the Journal. He later called Special Olympics head Tim Shriver to apologize.
Several advocates for the disabled noted that just as derogatory terms for African-Americans, Jews and gays are often associated with periods of oppression and prejudice in the country's history, the word "retarded" can elicit an equally emotional and visceral response.
It's a reminder to intellectually and developmentally disabled persons "of all the suffering they've experienced and all the ways they've been excluded from society," said Peter Berns, CEO of the advocacy group, the Arc of the United States, who attended the meeting with Emanuel. "Every time they hear the word all these images flood back to them about how they've been laughed at, pointed at, made fun of, sterilized ..."
In a letter to Emanuel, Berns described use of the R-word as "the moral equivalent of hate speech."
Advocates say this latest high-profile incident highlights the need for social sensitivities to evolve and that in many cases change must be initiated from above.
Thirty-five states have enacted or introduced legislation to remove mentions of "retardation" from government agencies and programs, renaming them to better reflect the people they serve.
Advocates Urge Obama to Rid Government of References to 'Retarded'
A bill known as Rosa's Law, which is currently before Congress, would change the term "mental retardation" or "mentally retarded" to "intellectual disabilities" in several federal statutes such as education and employment laws.
"We would hope the administration would commit to work with congressional sponsors to get it passed and commit to sign it when it hits the president's desk," Berns said.
For his part, the Special Olympics' Shriver recognizes that while episodes like this anger and offend many people, they also spark meaningful conversation.
Seckler said Shriver "invited Emanuel to take the R-word pledge at www.r-word.org and to join in the March 3, 2010, Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, as well as invite him to be a leader of change surrounding the pervasive and damaging use of the R-word."
This is not the first time someone who works in the White House has offended the community of people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Last March, President Obama joked on the "Tonight Show" that his notoriously bad bowling skills were "like the Special Olympics or something." Obama later called Shriver to apologize.
More than 7 million Americans live with intellectual or developmental disabilities, according to the Arc of the United States.