National Teachers Union Chief Says She Didn’t Mean to Call Kids “Chronically Tarded” and “Medically Annoying”

President of the National Education Association Lily Eskelsen García has apologized for remarks she made in October.

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

“Open mouth. Insert foot. That’s what I did.”

So begins this apology from Lily Eskelsen García—the president of the National Education Association—for remarks that outraged disabilities advocates and special-needs parents. In a lively speech at a Campaign for America’s Future gala in October, where she was accepting a Progressive Champion Award (just wait, because that detail is about to seem funny), Eskelsen García was running through a rapid-fire list of teachers’ sundry responsibilities when she produced a few infelicitous phrases:

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.

Oops. It was, as you can imagine, the “chronically tarded and the medically annoying” bit that caught the Internet’s attention. The video of her speech, which is chock-full of inspirational respect for teachers, has been viewed 1.2 million times since it was posted in early November, but it only recently attracted the attention of advocacy groups.

On Sunday, the American Association of People with Disabilities issued a statement condemning Eskelsen García for her language: “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.”

Late Monday night, after the expected social-media firestorm that followed, Eskelsen García posted a (rather excessively jaunty, to this viewer) video and written statement on her website apologizing for her statement.

Eskelsen García insists—and I’m inclined to believe her, because she’s the head of the largest labor union in the country, with 3 million members, and not a tortured poor-little-rich-girl protagonist in a John Hughes movie—that she meant to say “chronically tardy” (which, n.b., is an actual phrase) instead of “tarded”: “I was making the point,” she said, “that we adapt daily lesson plans and schedules to meet the needs of students who, often through no fault of their own, are never on time.”

Her explanation for the “medically annoying”—which sounds a lot like “medically fragile,” a common classroom designation for kids with a wide range of health problems—is somewhat less persuasive:

I was not referring to students who are ill or medically fragile. I was referring to 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.

So where does the “medically” come in here? Because an exceptionally annoying student can harass his beleaguered teacher straight into the sanitarium? Or was it more what it sounded like, a dig at the ubiquity of EpiPens and other serious medical issues pervading today’s schools?

In any event, Eskelsen García has been following up her apology by meeting with the disability advocates that called her out: