THE BLOG
04/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rahm Emanuel's "Retarded" Comment

When the news leaked that President Obama's Chief of Staff called liberals an expletive laden form of "retards," I remembered a similarly clumsy incident with a diversity officer for a major corporation.

During a diversity event to highlight the achievements of the company's employees with disabilities, the diversity officer had a real foot in mouth experience. As he introduced an employee who used a wheelchair, he remarked how jealous he was that the employee had a disability parking sticker. (This sticker is like gold in a place like New York City where parking is at a premium.) The employee coolly put the sticker -- and the diversity officer -- back into perspective by saying, "I actually wished that I didn't need one."

Making fun of people with disabilities is a part of our world's history because we truly do not understand this community. It's easy to forget that the marginalized -- in this instance, people with mental disabilities -- exist. The disparaging names and characterizations of people with mental disabilities as caricatures rather than people have significant repercussions. Despite anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the 2008 Annual Disability Status Report, only 17.6 percent of working aged people with disabilities are employed, compared to 77.7 percent of working aged people without disabilities.

I must admit, though, making reasonable accommodation when working and socializing with people with disabilities can seem like a burden. I teach a college-level business aspects of human resources and employment law class in Connecticut. I have a student who has a mental disability and he has missed enough classes to violate the college's attendance policy. Do I have to make exceptions for this student? Wouldn't it be much simpler and easier to hold him to the same standards as the rest of the class?

Of course, but is he a real drag? No. Often reasonable accommodations involve a slight tweak here and there as to how we function. So, instead of requiring perfect attendance from this student, I will give him additional assignments. To do otherwise would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. People with disabilities have a wealth of skills and talents that add to our environment. This student has added a rich perspective to my class, especially when we discuss the ADA and the crazy court decisions that led to the ADA Amendments.

Years ago, I volunteered as a coach for the Special Olympics and it was an eye opening experience. Now that Rahm has created the Obama administration's second strike against people with disabilities, I think that this year's Special Olympics should be on the White House's South Lawn. Usually, the more familiarity we have with a group, the less likely we are to see them as different. And Rahm, I would even be willing to accompany you to the games.