Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Monday apologized for using the word “retarded” to describe people with intellectual disabilities.
In a podcast Sunday about the New York City Housing Authority, Schumer recalled his days as a state representative when he experienced community resistance to congregate housing for children with disabilities.
The remarks start at the 39:11-minute mark.
“When I first was an assemblyman, they wanted to build a congregate living place for retarded children. The whole neighborhood was against it,” Schumer said. “These are harmless kids. They just needed some help.
“We got it done. Took a while,” Schumer added.
The project was linked to the Association for the Help of Retarded Children, according to Politico. The group no longer uses the word “retarded” but has kept the acronym.
“People are afraid, you know, I understand that,” Schumer said of opposition to the project. “When there’s change and they’re not given the things they need — safety and security — they get afraid. But you’ve got to address the real issues, not the fake issues.”
Drawing criticism for the remark, Schumer’s office issued an apology.
“For decades, Sen. Schumer has been an ardent champion for enlightened policy and full funding of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Schumer’s spokesperson said in a statement to Politico. “He is sincerely sorry for his use of the outdated and hurtful language.”
Considered offensive now, the term “retarded” and the related term “mental retardation” were originally neutral medical terms formally adopted during the 1960s, according to the Washington Post. The terms were themselves adopted as derogatory insults and by the early 2000s advocacy groups helped mainstream efforts to end their use.
Those efforts, in turn, led to 48 states removing the terms from local statues by 2010. That same year, then-President Barack Obama signed Rosa’s Law, which removed the word from the majority of federal statutes.
Named for Rosa Marcellino, a child with Down Syndrome, Obama said the legislation “amends the language in all federal health, education and labor laws to remove that same phrase and instead refer to Americans living with an ‘intellectual disability.'”
He quoted Rosa’s then-11-year-old brother, Nick, who in testimony about the impact of the term, said, “What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude towards people with disabilities,” the Special Olympics reported.
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