For Immediate Release
June 16, 2015
Contact: Julia Freeman-Woolpert, Outreach Advocacy Director
Richard Cohen, Disability Rights Center – NH’s Executive Director and leader in the disability rights movement, has announced he will retire in September, 2015. Cohen has been DRC’s Executive Director since 2002. Prior to that he was DRC’s Policy Director.
Cohen’s entire legal career has been devoted to the public interest and for the vast majority of time he has committed himself to protecting the rights of people with disabilities. At DRC, Cohen promoted a multi-faceted approach to advocacy and prided himself on the quality of the staff he hired, promoted, and led.
Cohen advocated on important issues affecting people with disabilities. Ending abuse and neglect of vulnerable people was a driving force in Cohen’s career. He served 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. 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 led the way in Senate Bill 138, designed to end the waiting lists for services for people with developmental disabilities and acquired brain injuries. He also focused on special education reform, including strengthening the NH Department of Education’s oversight and monitoring of school districts. During the planning for the revitalization of Concord’s downtown, he succeeded in ensuring most of the business entrances would be made accessible for those with walking disabilities.
Cohen began his career in legal services at New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA). Among the many cases he litigated at NHLA were two major pieces of system reform, Laaman vs. Helgemoe and Garrity vs. Gallen. Laaman resulted in a sweeping order requiring major improvements in services and programs at the New Hampshire State Prison, and improvement of conditions, including abolishing solitary confinement and providing adequate mental health care to inmates.
Cohen was lead trial counsel in Garrity, the Laconia State School lawsuit. A landmark order by the late Judge Shane Devine required that the state establish the Area Agency community service system and ensure that local school districts assume educational responsibility for children placed at the State School. The case ultimately led to the closure of the state school, and New Hampshire became the first in the nation to run an entirely community based system of services for people with developmental disabilities. New Hampshire Magazine declared Garrity to be one of the two most important class action law suits in New Hampshire’s history.
Cohen’s tenure saw DRC’s work create important advances for people with disabilities. These included a lawsuit that affirmed the right of people with disabilities to choice and dignity of risk, legislation severely limiting the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, and a class action lawsuit resulting in a settlement agreement to improve the community mental health system.
Cohen’s career spanned 43 years and three states, including serving as a federal Court Monitor in Minnesota in a deinstitutionalization case, followed by Court Monitor over a special education order in a class action against Boston Public Schools, and Director of the Abuse and Neglect Division of Investigations of the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Disabilities.
In 2009, Cohen was awarded the Daniel Holland Lifetime Achievement Award by the Boston College Law School Alumni Association for his accomplishments as a disability rights advocate, and was awarded the 2014 NH Bar Foundation Honorary Fellow for his national leadership in advocacy and policy work for individuals with disabilities.
“I am inspired by the humanity in all of us,” Cohen said. People with disabilities are people first, needing supports like the rest of us. What drove me was the range of abhorrent or isolated conditions and rights violations people with disabilities have been subjected to and the knowledge that with appropriate education and supports all individuals can be fully integrated, productive, independent and happy, a recipe for a good life for all us.”