NEA President Under Fire From Disability Rights Advocates

November 30, 2015

NEA President Under Fire From Disability Rights Advocates. Last month, National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia was given a “Progressive Champion” award by the Campaign for America’s Future. During the awards gala she gave a speech, a portion of which CAF posted on YouTube titled “NEA’s Lily Eskelsen García on What Teachers Do.”

The three-minute video begins with a tale of an encounter with a businessman on an airplane, and at about the 1:41 mark, Eskelsen Garcia begins a rapid-fire list of things teachers are expected to do, including diversifying the curriculum for a host of sub-groups.

Unfortunately for Eskelsen Garcia, one of the sub-groups she named was “the chronically ‘tarded and medically annoying.”

A few parents of children with disabilities were offended and a few blogs took Eskelsen Garcia to task. She made her way to the comments section of one blog to apologize:

Thank you for letting me know your concerns. 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.

Unfortunately for Eskelsen Garcia, the venue was not prominent enough to head off the budding outrage.

It took time, but advocacy groups started issuing statements condemning the NEA president’s remarks. The first was the American Association of People with Disabilities, who not only stated “we must chastise the President of the NEA for her comments,” but urged its supporters to take to Twitter with this recommended tweet:

“Chronically ‘tarded & medically annoying” is neither progressive nor acceptable @NEAToday @Lily_NEA @OurFuture #UnacceptableExample

Many people took up the cry and the traffic was sufficient to prompt the National Down Syndrome Society to issue its own condemnation, saying Eskelsen Garcia’s remarks “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.” The organization “will be inviting President Garcia and other NEA officials to a brainstorming session to discuss ways in which the NEA and the disability community can collaborate to enhance the educational experience for students with cognitive or medical challenges.”

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates soon followed suit, describing “horror, angst and disgust” about Eskelsen Garcia’s remarks. The inevitable Change.org petition demanding her resignation appeared, and at last view had 422 signatures and growing. The Twitter barrage has been picking up steam all morning.

As someone who also tries to be clever, I recognize the danger of failing. I have a few observations about this entire fiasco.

1) The apology was sincere and the explanation was reasonable. If you watch the video, you can see she’s reading that section of the speech. There’s no way in the world she (or her writers) wrote “chronically ‘tarded” on a card and thought it would be a good idea to use in a speech. Using the word “medically” as a synonym for “extremely” is weak, but the larger the volume of words you speak or write, the greater the chance that somewhere along the way you will pick a wrong one. I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt in both cases.

2) I’m actually a lot more skeptical of her account of the businessman on the plane, who conveniently acts as the perfect foil for her devastating comeback. As far as I know, no one has complained about Eskelsen Garcia mimicking his Southern accent. I wonder how the delivery might have changed had he been an Italian from Brooklyn.

3) How educational that you can receive an award for being a “progressive champion” and make one slip of the tongue and one poor choice of adverb and get raked over the coals by some of your closest allies.

4) How coincidental that you can receive an award for being a “progressive champion” from an organization to which your union consistently donates thousands of dollars of dues money.

5) I find that spouses are indispensable for keeping you out of this sort of trouble. They know when you’re not as half as clever as you think you are. Your employees are less willing to give you a stony stare when you tell your brilliant joke.

This will quickly blow over, but I expect Eskelsen Garcia’s speeches will get a little less colorful in the future.

Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics November 24-30:

*  The Vacancy of Shortage Claims. Getting the press to report the exact opposite of what is happening is a very marketable skill.

Helping Out the AP. Why the North Carolina Association of Educators doesn’t release membership information (but I do).

Friedrichs Oral Arguments Scheduled for January 11. Leave your luggage at home.

Quote of the Week. “These changes are also intended to assist the AEA in meeting one of the benchmarks established by the NEA for the AEA to work its way out of trusteeship.” – Sheila Hocutt Remington, president of the Alabama Education Association, defending the proposed constitutional amendments up for vote by the union’s delegate assembly this weekend. Some current and former AEA officers have denounced the amendments as “a demand from the NEA.” (November 16 Alabama School Journal)