For TV Journalist Richard Cohen,
Fight Not Over Yet
By Kathi Wolfe
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
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
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
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 Id met (in
America 73"). They didnt 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
A: No -- unfortunately.
Q: When you were working on "America 73" and
diagnosed as having MS that must have been an exciting time in
A: Yes! I was covering the Watergate hearings. It was
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 whod been Walter Cronkites
executive producer told me that I did the right thing, because if theyd
have known, they wouldnt 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) dont 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 dont think things have changed much since
A: The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is terrific
in terms of accessibility, public accommodations and blatant discrimination!
But when youre applying for a job and get turned down, you dont
know why you dont get it. Youd be hard pressed to go into any court
and argue that theres been (employment) discrimination against people
with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Q: So theres still discomfort with and fear of
people with chronic illnesses and disabilities?
A: Americans still dont want to know about chronic
illness and disability. Getting anybodys attention getting anybody
to treat you fairly -- is a challenge. Theyre uncomfortable with illness.
Its more pronounced in this bad economy. People are less patient
less flexible -- because times are hard. They think they cant afford to
take a chance on you. I dont think people are mean-spirited. Theyre
scared. They just dont want to go there. Its probably worse in
other countries. Our oldest kid lives in China. We were visiting him in
Shanghai. We didnt see any disabled people. I talked to China experts.
They said people with disabilities stay home there. Theres shame attached
to it (disability).
Q: Has your having MS made your children more sensitive to
people with disabilities?
A: Ones out of college and two are in college. It
(Cohens 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 arent saints. But theyre a bit more sensitized to the
difficulties of having a chronic illness. Theyve 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), theyd 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. Its
(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: Whats your take on the controversy surrounding
the Obama administrations 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
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 its been cheapened a lot. Its not as serious. The line
between news and entertainment has gotten too fuzzy.
Q: Do you like writing a column?
A: Yes. Its solitary and its yours.