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Outrage After White House Chief Drops ‘R-Word’

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(Updated: January 28, 2010 at 11:15 AM CT)

A media report quoting White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel using the word “retarded” drew fire from advocates who called the slip up a repeat offense as the White House worked swiftly to quell the matter.

Emanuel was quoted using the phrase “f—ing retarded,” in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The comment was reportedly made back in August at a meeting of liberal groups and White House aides after some suggested running negative advertisements about conservative Democrats with qualms over the proposed health care legislation.

Disability advocates were none too pleased to learn that the president’s top aide was flippantly using a term they are working diligently to absolve from the vernacular.

In a letter to Emanuel this week, Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver told the White House chief of his “dismay.” He asked Emanuel to join the Special Olympics campaign dubbed “Spread the Word to End the Word,” which is working to end use of the word “retarded.”

“I know that private political discourse can sometimes include profanity,” Shriver wrote. “But at the same time, our community cannot accept the idea that they will remain the butt of jokes and taunts. I hope you will join us in changing the conversation and eliminating this word from your vocabulary.”

Representatives of The Arc of the United States took a harsher tone, demanding an apology from Emanuel and suggesting that the White House staff “needs to be taught a lesson in respect for people with disabilities.”

The Arc said Emanuel’s comment was one more slight against people with disabilities coming from a White House that appointed a special assistant to the president for disability policy and professed to be a friend of the disability community.

Last year, President Barack Obama found himself in a similarly uncomfortable position after he joked with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that his bowling score “was like Special Olympics, or something.” Obama called Shriver to apologize for the remark even before the show aired.

In much the same fashion, Emanuel called Shriver Wednesday to apologize and the apology was accepted.

“The White House remains committed to addressing the concerns and needs of Americans living with disabilities and recognizes that derogatory remarks demean us all,” a White House official told Disability Scoop on the matter.

Emanuel’s private apology to Shriver isn’t sufficient, however, for representatives of The Arc who say Emanuel’s comment is hurtful to countless people with intellectual disabilities across the country.

“We still believe an apology to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families is in order,” The Arc’s spokeswoman Laura Hart said. “There should be a public statement, not a private one on this matter.”

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