NEA president's remarks were more than an 'epic fail'
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That's what she said. National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has been in hot water lately after making inappropriate remarks at an awards ceremony. Speaking at the Campaign for America's Future gala in October, Garcia ran through a list of all the responsibilities that teachers have, in addition to traditional classroom duties. "We serve kids a hot meal. We put band-aids on boo-boos," she said. "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 reference to "the chronically tarded and the medically annoying" outraged disability advocates, and Garcia was forced to apologize.

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Garcia's comments were insensitive, and her apology left much to be desired. Her words reflect a mindset that special needs students are an annoyance and a burden. That these remarks were made publicly by the head of the nation's largest labor union is troubling — as is the fact that Garcia did not express remorse until after her words went viral.

Garcia's inclusion of special needs students on a laundry list of teacher hardships was as unfortunate as it was revealing. Late last month, the American Association of People with Disabilities issued a statement: "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." Garcia's words were all the more ironic given that she made them while accepting a "Progressive Champion" award. If Garcia finds the growing number of students living with autism, Asperger's syndrome, developmental disabilities and physical challenges to be "medically annoying," then perhaps she is in the wrong profession; NEA's own website includes a section devoted to "Advocating for Students with Learning Disabilities."

On her NEA blog, Garcia wrote, "Open mouth. Insert foot. That's what I did. ... Epic fail. In my attempt to be clever and funny, I stepped on a word in one phrase, and I created another phrase that I believed was funny, but was insulting. I apologize." She explained that she did not mean to say "chronically tarded" but rather "chronically tardy." Okay, well, that's plausible.

Garcia went on to say that by "medically annoying," she meant "the student who, for example, has an argument with his girlfriend and now is having a very bad day, and doing everything humanly possible to annoy the teacher." Now that's a stretch. It would have been so much simpler if Garcia had owned her words with a full apology and no convoluted explanation. Consider that she didn't apologize until over a month had passed since her speech — and after the YouTube video of her words had racked up over 1.2 million views. Her apology suggests that she does not fully grasp why her words were so wrong.

Garcia's comments are especially sad given the context of recent events; GOP front-runner Donald Trump recently mocked a New York Times reporter with a physical disability, and model Kylie Jenner has drawn widespread criticism for posing in a gold wheelchair for Interview magazine. Is it asking too much for Garcia, the representative of 3 million educators, to exemplify concern and respect for all students?

True, teachers do incredible work, and their jobs often involve myriad responsibilities. They deserve the opportunity to vent and let off steam like anyone else. But Garcia ought to have known that a national gathering was not the place to do so. Her words might have been understandable in a private conversation, or in a moment of frustration. They had no place in a prepared speech. No wonder that parenting bloggers have continued to express anger toward her, or that social media users have called her out on Twitter using the hashtag "#UnacceptableExample." A petition calling for her resignation as NEA president has already been set up on the website Change.org.

Garcia's thoughtless words deserved condemnation. It should not have taken a firestorm of criticism for her to recognize that students' physical disabilities and medical conditions are not joking matters.

Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.