TOUCHED BY LYME: “Chronically tarded and medically annoying”? Really?
The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States, representing public school teachers and other educational personnel. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García recently got an award from a group called the Campaign for America’s Future. In her acceptance speech, she jokingly rattled off a list of everything school teachers are required to do. It included the following statement (emphasis mine):
“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 tone and demeanor were lighthearted. But why in the world would the president of NEA joke about disabled students? Why would she use the term (re)tarded, which is so offensive to so many people? And “medically annoying”? That could practically be a code word for Lyme disease—which can manifest in wildly divergent ways and is poorly understood by both the medical establishment and the educational system.
In our book When Your Child Has Lyme Disease: A Parent’s Survival Guide, Sandra Berenbaum and I devote two chapters to the educational challenges faced by students with Lyme disease. We note:
Many students with Lyme don’t look sick. Thus, school staff may not appreciate how ill these children actually are, and may fail to grasp why a student needs special consideration….Educators with a better understanding of how Lyme impacts schooling may be more willing to find ways to help the student.
But how likely are school personnel to gain an understanding of how Lyme affects their students if they start out with the idea that such children are “chronically tarded and medically annoying”? What kind of example is Ms. García setting for the teachers she claims to lead?
This past weekend, a press release from the American Association of People with Disabilities said in part:
AAPD condemns this statement and the disrespect it not only shows to students with disabilities, but all Americans with disabilities. As the nation’s largest labor union, representing over three million teachers, the NEA should know better than to insult students and must do more to be inclusive of all students. 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.
You can watch Ms. García’s comments here. The offending words come in at about 1:50. (Note: since this blog was written, Ms. Garcia has issued an apology. Click here for more about that.)
TOUCHED BY LYME is written by Dorothy Kupcha Leland, LymeDisease.org’s VP for Education and Outreach. She is co-author of When Your Child Has Lyme Disease: A Parent’s Survival Guide. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, she’s @dorothyleland.