Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE’s (D-Calif.) apologized Saturday after a questioner in New Hampshire described President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s actions as “mentally retarded” when she laughed and responded with “well said.”
In a clip of the Friday event, the questioner, wondering why congressional Democrats have declined to move forward on impeachment proceedings, asked Harris what she was “going to do in the next one year to diminish the mentally retarded actions” by Trump.
During a rally, a voter referred to Trump’s actions as “mentally retarded”, prompting @KamalaHarris to laugh and say, “well said, well said.”
I hate amplifying content I know the right will seize on and twist for their own hypocritical gain, but this hurts my heart. #CripTheVote pic.twitter.com/aVQWtLFw30
— Kendally Brown (@kendallybrown) September 7, 2019
“Well said,” Harris responded as the crowd applauded before adding, “I plan to win this election. I’ll tell you that.”
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The Harris campaign referred The Hill to an interview Harris did with CBS’s Caitlin Huey-Burns on Saturday, in which Harris said the man’s use of the phrase was “not something that I really heard or processed.”
@KamalaHarris told me that “in the year 2019, people should know it’s hurtful.” She said she did not hear him use the term.
— Caitlin Huey-Burns (@CHueyBurns) September 7, 2019
Harris also tweeted a video of her conversation with Huey-Burns and said she had not heard the person saying person saying the word but apologized.
“When my staff played the video from my town hall yesterday, it was upsetting.” Harris tweeted. “I didn’t hear the words the man used in that moment, but if I had I would’ve stopped and corrected him. I’m sorry. That word and others like it aren’t acceptable. Ever.”
When my staff played the video from my town hall yesterday, it was upsetting. I didn’t hear the words the man used in that moment, but if I had I would’ve stopped and corrected him. I’m sorry. That word and others like it aren’t acceptable. Ever. https://t.co/mNmo1hyNpW
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) September 7, 2019
While “mentally retarded” was once the clinical term for intellectual disabilities, it is now considered a slur, particularly when used as an insult.
Harris acknowledged this history in the interview, telling Burns, “It’s offensive, and you would think that in the year 2019, people would have a much better understanding how hurtful a term like that can be but also the history behind it, which is the history of really ignoring the needs and the realities and the capacity of our disabilities community.”
Disability rights activists criticized Harris for laughing in response to the questioner.
“Fighting against the R-word is disability rights 101. We have been working against that word in particular for decades,” journalist and historian David M. Perry told The Hill.
“As the father of a boy with Down syndrome, I expect my leaders to at least get this basic stuff right so we can work on much harder questions of justice and equity,” he added.
“We are not the butt of jokes, we are people first. Why should voters with [intellectual disabilities] vote for her now that she made fun of them?” Ivanova Smith, a faculty member at the University of Washington’s leadership education in neurodevelopment and related disabilities program, told The Hill.
“We have a say in politics too, and our voice matters, and I am saying this as a self-advocate leader myself,” she added.
Several incidents in recent years involving both Republicans and Democrats have aroused the ire of disability rights activists who perceived those figures as mocking disabled people or using them as shorthand for an insult.
In 2010, then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel apologized for describing progressive activists as “retards.” The year before, then-President Obama apologized for describing his bowling abilities as “Special Olympics” in an interview with Jay Leno.
President Trump, meanwhile, was condemned for making hand gestures that appeared to mock New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis.
Trump has denied the gesture was intended as a mockery of Kovaleski’s disability and has denied ever meeting him face-to-face. Kovaleski previously reported on Trump for the New York Daily News, where he says the two met dozens of times.