Newly retired Disability Rights Center director looks back on 40-year career

Last modified: 9/25/2015 4:56:15 PM
There’s no question, in Richard Cohen’s mind, that the last few decades have brought substantial progress for people living with disabilities. But he knows the work is far from finished.

“No matter what we’ve achieved, there’s still so much more to do,” the just-retired executive director of the Disability Rights Center said in a recent interview, reflecting back on a 40-year legal career that has found him right at the center of some of the most pivotal advancements for people with disabilities in New Hampshire.

Cohen – who spent 13 years as the center’s director and held past posts with New Hampshire Legal Aid, as a court monitor for major cases in Minnesota and Massachusetts, and as a director of investigations for what is now known as the Department of Developmental Services in Massachusetts – is proud to have played a role in bringing about changes both sweeping and incremental in New Hampshire.

When he first started out at Boston College Law School, Cohen knew he wanted to pursue a legal career in the public interest. After about a year in Boston, a desire to get out of the city led him to a position with New Hampshire Legal Assistance – first in their Keene office, and eventually as the managing attorney in the Concord office. There, a large portion of the clients were people with disabilities: patients at the state hospital, inmates at the prison or individuals at the Laconia State School.

In that position, Cohen played a key role in Garrity v. Gallen – a lawsuit that led to the closure of the Laconia State School and the creation of the state’s community-based system of support services. At the time, Cohen noted, New Hampshire was the first state to move toward such a system.

“It was not only good for the folks here, but it demonstrated to the rest of the country – and really the world – that you don’t need an institution,” Cohen said. “If you have the right supports in the community, people can live in the community. You don’t need these segregated, bad places.”

That experience of witnessing the conditions at the school and working to bring about widespread reforms was a turning point: “My job switched from being just a career to really a calling,” he said.

More recently, Cohen said he is particularly proud to have been involved in pushing the Legislature to adopt a law that sought to rein in the waiting lists for people who were owed developmental services support from the state. In essence, Cohen said, the legislation mandated that people in need should not have to wait more than 90 days for those services.

“We had a community-based system,” Cohen said, “but every year more and more people were waiting for services, sometimes for a year or two years at a time – putting a tremendous strain on their families, regressing, not getting employment.”

And in a broader sense, Cohen has been proud to have mentored and led a team of others at the Disability Rights Center who have taken on big challenges of their own in pursuit of continuing to improve the lives of their clients and the community at large. Amy Messer, for example, was the lead attorney in the center’s recent class-action lawsuit regarding the state’s mental health system. Cohen wasn’t involved directly, but he oversaw Messer and others who worked on the case – now, Messer is set to take over as the executive director.

“Now they’re kind of pushing me,” Cohen said of the team at the center. “They’ve developed the will, the skill and the courage to certainly do it on their own.”

Despite the progress that has been made, Cohen said it’s important not to lose sight of the work left to do.

People with disabilities still face substantially higher rates of unemployment than the rest of the population, Cohen noted, and towns continue to lag in creating spaces that are accessible to all members of a community. (Cohen did note with optimism that the new Main Street overhaul in Concord might serve as an example of an accessible model for others to emulate.)

The educational system, as he sees it, is still in need of significant improvement to allow for full participation of students with disabilities, and the community support system that was once such a revolutionary model has eroded in the level of quality services it’s able to provide.

Meanwhile, Cohen noted, the state agencies tasked most directly with carrying out oversight of those aforementioned issues – education and support services – have, in his view, seen “a substantial erosion in quality, accountability, leadership” over the last decade and a half.

The Department of Education, Cohen said, has historically been too deferential to local control and has not done enough to act as a watchdog in ensuring that students with disabilities are getting the kind of education they deserve.

Bonnie Dunham, the mother of a 34-year-old son with a disability who has been involved with the state’s Parent Information Center on Special Education for several decades, responded on behalf of the department – and said that, in her experience, the agency has been responsive and open to resolving issues whenever they’re brought to the attention of those in leadership positions. There’s still room for improvement, Dunham agreed, but she said New Hampshire has been used as a model for other states when it comes to listening to parents and other stakeholders on special education issues.

The Department of Health and Human Services, Cohen said, has been “quite good” at fulfilling its oversight responsibilities during certain points in its history – but the agency in its current state has neither the number of staff nor the quality therein to provide that kind of monitoring, Cohen said.

“There’s a lack of internal accountability, lack of leadership, lack of vision. The service systems are suffering as a result of it,” Cohen said. “Part of it is a resource issue . . . but also part of it is that there’s not the type of people in leadership to carry out all the critical responsibilities.”

Jake Leon, a spokesman for the health department, responded by stating that the agency is “committed to meeting the health and human services needs of New Hampshire citizens.” He also noted that the department has lost some 500 positions in recent years and is dealing with a high vacancy rate, as well as a lack of adequate funding.

“We recognize that we may not get those resources back and continue to pursue new approaches and processes to meet the needs of the State’s residents as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Leon wrote in an email.

As he looks forward to the future, Cohen said he’s not planning to take a break completely. He is eager to continue to give back – perhaps, he said, by volunteering as a direct support person for someone living with mental illness or a disability.

And he will keep hoping, all the while, for more progress toward a day when people with disabilities are valued and supported the same way as their peers in all aspects of society.

“It’s always an uphill battle,” he said, “and there’s still a lot to be done.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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