The exchange occurred during a discussion with the Democratic presidential candidate Friday in New Hampshire.
A man in the audience asked what Harris planned to do in the next year to “diminish the mentally retarded” actions of the president.
Members of the audience applauded and laughed. Harris, who was standing on a stage several feet from the man who spoke, chuckled and responded with, “Well said, well said.”
“I plan to win this election, I’ll tell you that,” she added.
By Saturday, Harris had started to backtrack on her response, telling CBS News the term that the man had used was “incredibly offensive” and that it wasn’t something she had “really heard or processed.”
Harris added that she had a long-standing record of supporting people with disabilities. She unveiled a plan last month to help individuals with disabilities gain equal access to jobs, education, housing and health care.
“You would think that in the year 2019, people would have a much better understanding of how hurtful a term like that can be, but also the history behind it,” she told CBS, “which is a history of really ignoring the needs and the realities and the capacity of our disability community.”
On her Twitter account, Harris said it had been “upsetting” to watch a video of the exchange.
“I didn’t hear the words the man used in that moment, but if I had, I would’ve stopped and corrected him,” she wrote. “I’m sorry. That word and others like it aren’t acceptable ever.”
Her team did not return a request for comment about whether questions from attendees had been screened and preapproved. The identity of the man who had asked the question was unclear.
Responses to Harris’ apology on Twitter were mixed. Some users took note of Rosa’s Law, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, which replaced the phrase “mentally retarded individual” in federal statues with “individual with an intellectual disability.”
The effort to change the language people use to refer to those with intellectual disabilities dates back to the 1980s, Peter Berns, chief executive of The Arc, a national advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said Sunday.
“It’s very upsetting to hear that phrase continued to be used so commonly in our culture today,” Berns said. He called the term “derogatory” and “deeply offensive” to people with intellectual disabilities.
“Every time it is used, it really creates a teachable moment to try to explain to members of the public why the term is so offensive and really to share the history of oppression that people with intellectual disabilities have experienced in our country over the last 100 years, if not more,” Berns said.
Berns said he was glad to see Harris apologize.
“Frankly, anyone — whether they’re a politician, a business leader, a celebrity — anyone who is using this language inappropriately” should apologize and become champions for this cause, he said.
“They’re in a great position to help educate others to stop the derogatory nature of this language,” he said.
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