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A Letter to the NEA: 'On the Chronically Tarded and Medically Annoying'

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Recently, a speech by NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia on what teachers are expected to do each day flooded social media. While many shared the clip and applauded some of its excellent points, it didn’t take long for outrage to set in. When discussing the challenges inherent to differentiating classroom instruction, Garcia listed a series of learning disabilities that ended with the phrase “the chronically tarded and medically annoying.” That didn’t go over well with a lot of people, including me.

Setting aside my initial dismay at her choice of words, I was further disappointed by your response to the controversy. First, there was a delay. Then this video went viral. I personally saw it dozens of times in my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Had I been her, the moment I realized I’d thrown out the word “tarded,” I wouldn’t have waited to correct it. I would have immediately raced to my social media accounts and begged forgiveness for my verbal blunder.

She didn’t do that. A month following her speech, she tweeted to the effect of it being an error (“stepping on a word”) combined with a poorly conceived joke. (I’m guessing social media’s negative reaction to those tweets is why she deleted them shortly thereafter.) I confess that like other advocates for special needs, I’m having difficulty with her explanation.

That’s because I thought the rest of the speech was fantastic. She channeled her inner Winston Churchill in a way that was well-considered, thought-provoking and passionate. At first, I was cheering her on and enjoying that feeling of “Yes, she’s speaking for us!” Then came the tarded and annoying line, and my jaw dropped.

I have no idea whether or not she accidentally tripped over the word tardy or not. I could have bought that and probably would’ve with a prompt and dignified apology — were that the only problem with her sentence. But it wasn’t. It was followed by the phrase “medically annoying.” She explained that was a badly worded joke, triggering a real “What you talking about, Willis?” moment for me. As I said, the rest of her speech was excellent. And, see, stirring speeches don’t happen by accident. 

Churchill’s iconic rallying words weren’t extemporaneous and neither were hers. She obviously took some time with it. It was the kind of speech or essay a writer goes over and over, picking out the weeds, because you know it to be truth, and you want that truth conveyed. I find it difficult to believe she wouldn’t have questioned her joke. Since all of the other items in the series preceding it were a legitimate, non-humorous list of learning disabilities, it doesn’t even make sense to have the last two be jokes out of context. And the second one is a play of words on a phrase used to describe children who are hooked up to tracheostomy tubes and portable oxygen. How could that possibly seem like a good joke?

Next, she posted her video apology and elaborated on the same explanation. I’ve already stated why many of us are unsatisfied with it. However, I wasn’t lining up with those demanding her resignation. (Since I don’t purport to know where her heart was when she wrote that line, I’m not willing to sign a petition for her removal.) But her apology video is where things got worse. She laughed. She laughed about a controversy that — whether unkind or simply ill-conceived — had a lot of people believing she made fun of disabled children. While serving as the president of the nation’s largest teacher’s union, a powerful group of people one would hope would be sensitive to the needs of special education students. Special needs students who have families who love them dearly. Families who struggle more than most to prepare their children for an uncertain future. Mothers like me, up at 2 a.m. writing to you on a laptop in the dark, awake with an autistic child who suffers serious sleep issues. And, instead of apologizing in a respectful manner befitting the high emotions surrounding this controversy, she laughed. I hope it doesn’t come as a surprise that many of us did not share her amusement. There’s a not-so-subtle tone of censure in her laughter for any of us crazy enough to believe that was her intention. Perhaps it wasn’t her intention to say those things. But since she did, she fails to see the onus is on her to prove it — not giggle about it.

But even that’s not what’s most upsetting. Now, I’ll admit I’m not familiar with the inner workings of a large advocacy group, but I cannot imagine an organization as big as the NEA doesn’t have a team on this. Not solely dedicated perhaps, but I’m guessing you folks at the very least held a meeting on this drama. A meeting staffed with some highly educated people in the education profession. Since I doubt she prepared, produced and posted the video all alone, that means other people in the top seats of the NEA also thought the response to be an appropriate one. That’s what’s really bothering me.

You see, not only am I the parent of a child with special needs, I’m a teacher. I am also a fellow NEA member. I am one of you. And today I’m embarrassed to be associated with you.

No, I’m not calling for anyone’s resignation. There’s entirely too much of that sort of thing these days, and I’m sure you’re probably perfectly nice people who’ve made some errors in judgment. But I want you to know — because it matters — how your handling of this situation has disappointed our profession by further damaging already shaky perceptions special needs parents have about public education. Not by a simple mistake, but a series of them — highlighting your (and, by association, teachers’) insensitivity and lack of respect for the very people we seek to serve.  Children. Since you are teachers, I shouldn’t have to remind you of the higher standard to which we are held. Simply put: The “largest labor union committed to advancing the cause of public education” either inadvertently or intentionally insulted our most vulnerable students. And then voted to post a video laughing about it.

What you’re supposed to do when you hurt people is apologize, quickly and respectfully. You’re supposed to be forthright in your explanation. And if you are a major policy leader, you’re supposed to shout your dissatisfaction with your actions and commitment to improvement from the rooftop. That fact that all of you couldn’t see to do that doesn’t speak well for your advocacy for special education students and teachers in this country, who are presumably included under the umbrella of your mission statement.

I sincerely hope you hold another meeting. I hope that you don’t choose to chalk this up to a culture increasingly easy to offend. You are the National Education Association. I implore you to understand that more is and should be expected of your leadership. What we do and who we serve are too important for flippancy.

Teacher, teach thyself.

A version of this post originally appeared on Flappiness Is.

Lead photo source: YouTube video screenshot

Originally published: December 3, 2015
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