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For TV Journalist Richard Cohen,
Chronic Illness Fight Not Over Yet

By Kathi Wolfe

Richard Cohen and wife, Meredith Vieira

Nearly 40 years ago, Richard M. Cohen, a young television journalist, joined a PBS documentary series called "America ‘73." For the program, Cohen produced a film about disability rights issues.

The segment, one of the first documentaries on that topic, profiled a group of people with disabilities who were fighting for their civil rights. Judith E. Heumann (now special advisor for international disability rights at the U.S. State Department), Fred Francis (who became a leading New York disability advocate) and the late Pat Figueroa, publisher of this paper, were among those in this group. When the series was in postproduction, Cohen, then 25, learned that he had multiple sclerosis. Because of the MS, he is also legally blind

Cohen, now 64, went on to have a decades-long, Emmy Award-winning career covering wars and national politics for ABC, PBS, CNN and CBS. Today, he writes a biweekly, online column on living with a chronic illness “ChroniChronically Upbeat” for AARP, The Magazine. Cohen is the author of the books "Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness: A Reluctant Memoir" and "Strong at the Broken Places: Voices of Illness, a Chorus of Hope." He and his wife, television journalist and personality Meredith Vieira, have three children.

With the 40th anniversary of "America ‘73" on the horizon, Cohen spoke by phone with Independence Today about the politics of disability and living with a chronic illness.

Q: What was working on “America `73" like for you?

A: The irony of it (is) I got very emotionally involved with “America ‘73.” I went out to (the Center for Independent Living) in Berkeley, California, to cover the politics of disability. I met people who had disabilities from auto and surfing accidents – from congenital birth defects. They were my age. When you spend an intense period of time with contemporaries, it has a big effect on you. Then I started having symptoms. “This is all psychosomatic,” I said when I went to the doctor. I thought it was because I identified with the people I’d met (in “America ‘73"). They didn’t have the diagnostic tests then that they do today, but it was clear that I had MS. My father and grandmother had it. My dad practiced medicine for 40 years. He finished his life in a wheelchair and lived to be 90.

Q: Is there a copy of the "America ‘73" film on the disability group?

A: No -- unfortunately.

Q: When you were working on "America ‘73" and diagnosed as having MS – that must have been an exciting time in journalism.

A: Yes! I was covering the Watergate hearings. It was heavy stuff!

Q: Did you tell the people you worked with that you had MS when you were first diagnosed (with it)?

A: No. Later, a man who’d been Walter Cronkite’s executive producer told me that I did the right thing, because if they’d have known, they wouldn’t have hired me. Employment is still a big issue for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. They still have a terrible problem in the job market. People (employers) don’t want to take a chance. As I see it, people with chronic illnesses (and disabilities) would work harder to prove themselves – to be the best employees.

Q: So you don’t think things have changed much since "America ‘73"?

A: The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is terrific in terms of accessibility, public accommodations and blatant discrimination! But when you’re applying for a job and get turned down, you don’t know why you don’t get it. You’d be hard pressed to go into any court and argue that there’s been (employment) discrimination against people with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Q: So there’s still discomfort with and fear of people with chronic illnesses and disabilities?

A: Americans still don’t want to know about chronic illness and disability. Getting anybody’s attention – getting anybody to treat you fairly -- is a challenge. They’re uncomfortable with illness. It’s more pronounced in this bad economy. People are less patient – less flexible -- because times are hard. They think they can’t afford to take a chance on you. I don’t think people are mean-spirited. They’re scared. They just don’t want to go there. It’s probably worse in other countries. Our oldest kid lives in China. We were visiting him in Shanghai. We didn’t see any disabled people. I talked to China experts. They said people with disabilities stay home there. There’s shame attached to it (disability).

Q: Has your having MS made your children more sensitive to people with disabilities?

Richard and wife, MeredithA: One’s out of college and two are in college. It (Cohen’s disability) has been a part of their lives for so long. They take it for granted. There are no victims in this house – nobody to feel sorry for. They aren’t saints. But they’re a bit more sensitized to the difficulties of having a chronic illness. They’ve learned the larger lesson – to help people who they see need help.

Q: How were you able to work, having MS and legally blind, in television news?

A: I was lucky! When I lost a lot of vision, I had to fake my way through a lot of stuff. But I could do that – I worked as part of a team. When I told them (his employers and co-workers), they’d already formed relationships with me, and they kept me on.

Q: How did having a disability form your attitude about working in television news?

A: It (having a disability) humanizes you. It’s (television news) a business full of huge egos! Needing help from other people is sobering. It knocks you down more than a peg or two to see your mortality and flaws as you try to make a living.

Q: What’s your take on the controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s health care law?

A: It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court does about the individual mandate provision of the law. I think there will be many versions of it (the health care law).

Q: How many people in this country have chronic illnesses?

A: About 130 million people have a chronic illness. They range from minor problems to heart conditions to cancer. Because of the aging baby boomers, there will be more people with chronic illnesses.

Q: Do you worry about the current state of journalism?

A: Yes. I got in on the good years! Journalism will survive, but it’s been cheapened a lot. It’s not as serious. The line between news and entertainment has gotten too fuzzy.

Q: Do you like writing a column?

A: Yes. It’s solitary and it’s yours.

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