Bar News - September 16, 2015
Richard Cohen: ‘A Calling at the Highest Level’
By: Carol Robidoux
“For some people it’s a job. For some people, it’s a career. This, to me, is a calling at the highest level.”
Instead of stepping away from the work he has done as an advocate for disabled people for more than four decades, Dick Cohen plans to use his retirement as a chance to approach the problem in a more direct, one-on-one way, like he did when he first became aware of it.
Dick Cohen was a precocious child. His parents, anxious to get him into school, enrolled in a private school at age 5, because he was too young for public school. He seemed ready to rise to the academic challenges of formal education.
What he lacked in seasoning and stature he made up for in insight and a keen sense of observation, as illustrated by one of his earliest memories – a friendship that likely shaped the course of his life, and his perception of those with disabilities.
“I remember one kid, Bobby, who had polio. We befriended each other. He wore braces on his legs. He could walk, but the kids during recess would bully him, you know, making fun of him and throwing rocks at him. Bobby would climb up a tree, and I’d climb with him, and he seemed impervious to the pain. He was tougher than them. I didn’t realize it then, but my view of people with disabilities was sort of taking shape then, as those who are stronger and tougher than the rest of us,” says Cohen, Executive Director of the Disability Rights Center.
He is stepping down this month after 43 years in the trenches of protecting the rights of those with disabilities. His life’s work has been focused on creating a policy-driven and sustainable statewide clearinghouse for advocacy and equality.
Cohen attended college during the civil rights and anti-war era, which also helped solidify his proclivity toward public interest law. There are two particular cases that will forever be associated with Cohen, and his passion and expertise for defending the rights of those rendered voiceless, through incarceration and disability – Laaman vs. Helgemoe and Garrity vs. Gallen.
Laaman resulted in sweeping reform of services and programs at the New Hampshire State Prison, improving living conditions and abolishing solitary confinement, while creating a system to deliver adequate mental health care to inmates.
But the case that shined a national spotlight on the issue of institutional abuse and neglect of the disabled and the need for widespread reform was a class action suit against Laconia State School, a landmark case that ultimately led to closure of the school. As a result, says Cohen, New Hampshire became the first in the nation to run an entirely community-based system of services for people with developmental disabilities.
It was a life-altering case for Cohen, as well.
On a personal level, what he witnessed going on inside the walls of Laconia State School in the name of long-term care shook him to his core. He saw people whose individuality and humanity had been deliberately stripped away.
“Seeing that those with disabilities were the most devalued members of society was shocking to me. It was almost like Nazi Germany, the way they were corralled and segregated and put into institutions and deprived of the normal experiences the rest of us had. Yes, that’s a strong statement to make, but I think that’s part of what ultimately made me dedicate my career to disability rights,” says Cohen.
Other career highlights include his service on a task force to create legislation in 2006 that formed a registry for workers with a history of abusing, neglecting or exploiting vulnerable adults. And in 2011, Cohen authored a White Paper examining deaths and abuse and neglect trends in New Hampshire, leading to extensive reform of oversight and enforcement systems.
He also led the charge for Senate Bill 138, designed to end the waiting lists for services for people with developmental disabilities and acquired brain injuries, and has been an outspoken advocate of special education reform, including strengthening the NH Department of Education’s oversight and monitoring of school districts.
Most recently, during the planning for the revitalization of Concord’s downtown, Cohen succeeded in lobbying for accessible business entrances for those with walking disabilities.
He says he has learned along the way from some of the best legal minds and experts in the field, and he has, in turn, become a mentor to countless others who will carry the torch in his absence. Leaving the Disability Rights Center now, at a point in his career when he still has a fire in his belly for its mission, is bittersweet. There is still much work to be done, and he says he couldn’t walk away if not for the competent leadership of incoming Executive Director Amy Messer, who previously served as the center’s legal director.
Retirement, for Cohen, doesn’t mean slowing down but rather signals a change in direction, and pace. He will continue to do some consulting, on abuse and neglect prevention and development of investigation systems.
“But the other thing I want to do is be a life coach or a mentor for a person with a developmental disability or mental illness – or both. I want to be that one-on-one support person who’s there, just for them,” says Cohen.
“For some people it’s a job. For some people, it’s a career. This, to me, is a calling at the highest level. I’ve looked at the legal skills I have as a lawyer merely as a tool I have to address this incredible social injustice, and it has become my main motivator, my raison d’être.” says Cohen.