Oryx Nominated for National Disability Award

Submitted by admin on Thu, 06/22/2006 - 23:38
Posted on Jun 23, 06

From the Springfield Republican:

Freedom Center co-founder honored for work
Sunday, June 18, 2006

NORTHAMPTON - The American Association of People with Disabilities selected Oryx Cohen as one of 10 national finalists for the 2006 Paul G. Hearne Award and the association's Leadership Award.

It was Cohen's outstanding leadership within the psychiatric disability community that got him recognized for his service.

Among other things, Cohen co-founded the Freedom Center in Northampton, an internationally respected community organization run by and for people labeled with psychiatric disabilities. He also directs Mind Freedom International's Oral History Project and is a key advisor to the Hampshire County Access to Equality Coalition.

Cohen, who now lives with his wife in Worcester, first moved to the area in 1999 from Oregon, where he worked with inner-city youth. Shortly after beginning a graduate school program in public administration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that year, Cohen had his first manic episode. He says the university administration was very supportive, both of his need to take time out and of his desire to focus on mental health policy when he returned.

"The master's in public administration is pretty broad, and originally I thought I'd be working with kids in some capacity after graduation," he says. "But having that experience in the mental health system totally refocused my goals. And that's why I'm doing what I do now."

Cohen was ultimately hospitalized for his condition, and he says it was his negative experience that led him to investigate alternatives for others.

"I remember seeing how I was treated and how others were treated in the hospital," he says. "It was kind of less than human. When I was going through a difficult time, I didn't have an alternative to the hospital. I was really motivated to start an organization that provided alternatives I didn't have, like peer support groups, yoga and acupuncture."

In 2001, he helped found the Freedom Center in Northampton. Members of the volunteer collective offer weekly peer support groups, free yoga classes and an acupuncture clinic. They also sponsor or provide a community film series, peer advocacy, a weekly radio show and three to six large public events per year featuring leaders in the psychiatric disabilities movement.

Those involved with the Freedom Center offer speaking engagements and trainings at local colleges, independent living centers and mental health organizations. The center also provides an online discussion forum with more than 100 members as well as a comprehensive Web site.

Through outreach and a multimedia approach, the Freedom Center is now reaching more than 5,000 people worldwide. It receives funding from private foundation grants and donations, in addition to public funding from the Northampton Community Development Block Grant.

Cohen says the Freedom Center welcomes those who choose to remain on psychiatric medication as well as those who - like himself - have opted to forego medication. "We support anyone's choice to care for themselves in the way that they want," he says. "We allow people to make their own decisions about their care."

He adds that even though he doesn't work directly with students now, he still aims to make a difference in the lives of children.

"Mental health affects everybody," he explains, "including young people."

In addition to his work at the Freedom Center, Cohen has served as the career initiatives director of the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium since 2002. He is a board member of the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy and served as chairman of that group's highly attended 2005 conference, "Reclaiming Freedom: A Call to Action" in Hartford.

His article, "How Do We Recover? An analysis of psychiatric survivororal histories" was published in last July's issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

The 40 previous awardees represent a diverse group of people with disabilities, ranging in age from 11 to 56. Award recipients have, among other things, built a Web site to educate people with psychiatric disabilities; worked to educate the public about the abilities of people with Down syndrome; raised money for accessible playgrounds across the country; and actively promoted the political participation of people with disabilities.


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