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Raymond Cohen spent his life crusading for the disability community.
Raymond Cohen spent his life crusading for the disability community.

Obituary

Activist Raymond Cohen a strong voice for people with disabilities Add to ...

Raymond Cohen was founder of the Canadian Abilities Foundation and editor of Abilities, “Canada’s lifestyle magazine for people with disabilities.”

First published in 1986, Abilities today has a readership of 80,000, reaching a wide range of people with disabilities, their families, friends and professionals working in their service.

And Mr. Cohen, with his characteristic tenacity, charm and boundless energy, was daily at the helm. Not bad for a kid who dropped out of school, never to return, in Grade 7.

Fierce in his fight for human rights, Mr. Cohen clamped tight to three basic tenets: provide information, lend inspiration and create opportunity to the Canadian disability community.

“Ray had a vision about Abilities,” said Marcia Rioux, director of the York Institute for Health Research. “He realized long before others that we needed a media arm for the disability movement.”

Articles in the magazine ranged from dolphin-assisted therapy and blind sled-dog racers to “the new faces of eugenics” and double-whammy discrimination experienced by disabled same-sex couples.

One of his key issues, for which he fought hard, was the right for disabled individuals to – literally – make it through the door. His frustration with inaccessible buildings in Toronto caused him to draw a riveting archeological and architectural analogy.

“Few things are as annoying as that old heritage argument,” he wrote in an editorial.

“You know the one: ‘We’d love to make this place accessible but it’s a historic building. It’s old and its integrity must be preserved.’”

His retort was to reference the Acropolis in Athens, which was made wheelchair-accessible in time for the 2004 Olympic games.

Mr. Cohen died in Toronto on March 22 of complications from treatment for hepatitis C. He was 64.

Raymond’s mother, Margaret Tuteur, survived Hitler’s death camps. She and her husband, Henry Cohen, settled with their children for a time in London, England, where Raymond was born in 1949.

In Montreal, where the family moved in 1958, his father worked as a ladies’ tailor and struggled in a new age of mass production of clothing. As a nine-year-old, Raymond battled villains in the alleys of Outremont dressed in Zorro’s black mask and fabric-castoff cape.

His parents’ traumatic history and struggles as immigrants no doubt helped shape him into a fighter for social justice – beginning in fantasy and ending with ability.

After quitting school in Grade 7 and a stint as a sixties flower child, he took a job as an orderly at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. Then he took his fight back to the street, starting one of Montreal’s first drug rehabilitation programs.

His career soon took him to Vancouver as director of the Alcohol and Drug Commission of B.C. and then to the department of child care at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary.

While in Calgary, working with disabled children, he had an “aha!” moment that led to the birth of Abilities. He discovered that once the children turned 18, they were stripped of social services and left out to dry.

“I was leading a parents’ support group,” he wrote, and “the anxiety which surrounded each participating family as graduation day grew closer was palpable.”

“What next?” they wondered, panicked.

Mr. Cohen moved to Toronto in 1987, started the Canadian Abilities Foundation, and lent support to members of the disability community.

Cameron Graham, a member of the foundation’s board, said Mr. Cohen’s mission included teaching Canadian society that people with disabilities are people with considerable abilities, partly as a result of dealing with their physical challenges.

“[These people] are good at marshalling resources and still managing to have energy left over to do the things that they are really exceptional at,” said Mr. Graham.

People such as the blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, who conquered Mt. Everest in 2001 and later guided wounded soldiers to the summit of Mt. Lobouch, a 20,000-foot peak near Everest. And Winnipegger Michelle Stilwell, a gold medal winner in the Paralympics in wheelchair racing in Beijing in 2008 (two golds) and London in 2012.

Both were the subjects of cover stories for Abilities.

Another project sponsored by the Canadian Abilities Foundation is Access Guide Canada, an online directory of accessible resources. It provides information about accessible hotels, washrooms, parking spots, elevators and other venues.

Earlier this year, Mr. Cohen was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee medal for his community work. Although very ill, he managed to whoop it up with his trademark joy – at a wheelchair-accessible Toronto restaurant.

He leaves his wife Michelle, children Chris and Reneta and grandchildren Emma and Lauren.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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