Eskelsen Garcia made the remarks during an Oct. 27 speech addressing the Campaign for America’s Future. Speaking about her frustration with people who don’t understand the full range of what schools do, she rattled off a long litany of teachers’ responsibilities.
“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.”
The video of her talk made the rounds on social media as many teachers applauded Eskelsen Garcia’s sentiment: Being a great teacher is a difficult and sprawling job that requires so much more than just teaching. But to others, including many parents of children with special needs, Eskelsen Garcia had showed an astonishing lack of respect for children with disabilities.
The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates issued a statement about the “horror, angst and disgust” that many in the disability community felt upon hearing Eskelsen Garcia’s speech. The American Association for People with Disabilities issued a strongly worded statement condemning Eskelsen Garcia’s remarks and urging people to “call out” the union and its leader using the hashtag #UnacceptableExample.
In her apology, Eskelsen Garcia explained that she had meant to say “chronically tardy,” but tripped over her words because she was speaking quickly. And she had made up the term “medically annoying” in an attempt to be funny, she said.
“I apologize for my choice of words,” she wrote. “Let me be clear: 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. What we do in our classrooms and how we adjust must take these students into consideration, too.”
She added that the episode has been a teachable moment for her, and one that she hopes that children will learn from too. “We all should be more careful before we speak, slow down and make sure our points are well articulated and fully understood,” she said. “The bottom line is, I screwed up and I apologize. Please judge me by my heart, not by my mistakes.”
Jennifer Bolander, the mother of an 11-year-old girl with special needs, said she appreciated Eskelsen Garcia’s effort to make an apology, and she believes that the union leader is sincerely dedicated to students. But her speech, Bolander said, showed “evidence of an overall, quiet annoyance with children who need extra supports in the school setting.”
“The fact that she started off her speech with the list of children who presumably would receive special education services seemed to imply that teachers should be applauded even more because, look, they have to do all this extra work for these particular students,” Bolander said.
“Is it acceptable for Ms. Garcia to say something like this on a public stage? Absolutely not, no matter how she or other teachers may feel personally. Individuals with special needs work so extremely hard to live what the rest of us take for granted as a ‘normal life’; to hear someone in Ms. Garcia’s position express even minimal annoyance, even by mistake, is simply hurtful and wrong.”
Bolander said she hoped the incident would spark a dialogue between the union and disability organizations that would help create more positive school environments for kids with disabilities. Union officials said Eskelsen Garcia has been meeting with disability groups and their members this week.