A historic White House meeting last week drew unexpected national attention to disability issues and forged a new relationship between the disability community and administration officials that could set the tone for years to come.
The half-hour meeting last Wednesday in Emanuel’s office marked what is believed to be the first time self-advocates were included in dialogue with a top White House official, while garnering the attention of national media and even Saturday Night Live.
Emanuel’s gathering with six advocates came more than a week after The Wall Street Journal quoted the White House chief of staff using the phrase “f—ing retarded.” The report prompted outrage among self-advocates and disability organizations who say use of the word “retarded” is offensive and should be discontinued.
Emanuel seemed genuinely surprised by the outrage he generated and told the advocates that he planned to discuss the situation with his three children so that they could learn from his mistakes, Peter Berns told Disability Scoop. Berns attended the meeting in his role as CEO of The Arc of the United States.
“My sense was that this had opened up his eyes in a way that was significant and that the reaction has really touched him,” Berns said. “He expressed his apologies and regrets. It struck me as very sincere and heartfelt on his part. I did not at all have the impression that he was going through the paces.”
The meeting gave advocates an opportunity to, “establish a personal relationship that we didn’t have before,” Berns said.
As follow-up, advocates expect to forward additional information requested by Emanuel to the White House Tuesday regarding proposed legislation known as Rosa’s law. Under the bill, references to “mental retardation” would be replaced with the term “intellectual disability” throughout federal law.
Already, Emanuel took the Special Olympics pledge to end use of the “r-word.”
In addition to Berns, representatives of Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities attended the meeting. Self-advocates Ricardo Thornton and Julie Petty told Emanuel of the personal hurt they feel when the word retarded is used. And, Hannah Jacobs, a parent advocate who started a Facebook group dedicated to warding off offensive use of the “r-word” on the social networking site, showed examples of hateful use of the language that persists.
“It struck us coming out of the meeting that this was something of a historic moment for the self-advocacy movement. I’m not aware of whether a group of self-advocates has ever ventured into the inner sanctum of the White House,” Berns said.
The meeting also gave new energy to efforts to eliminate use of the word “retarded.” As the flare-up prompted by Emanuel’s remarks started to die down, Rush Limbaugh became the latest focus of advocates’ attention after he used the term repeatedly on his radio show. Both Special Olympics and The Arc sent letters to the conservative talk show host asking him to discontinue use of the word and meet with advocates as Emanuel did.