Color & Control:

Ray Cohen, In Memoriam

Raymond Cohen


Raymond Cohen

Fond Remembrances of Abilities’ Founder, Publisher, Editor and Guiding Spirit


Ray: The Leader

One thing is certain. Ray’s heart did not give out on him. It was too big, too strong, too full of love. Next to his wife, Michelle, and his family, Ray loved disability culture. He was our apostle, historian and animator. Abilities was his profession of love: How else to explain over two decades of consistently high journalistic standards on a shoestring budget? Canadian magazines aren’t supposed to last that long. Never letting us down. Doing more to enable and profile the contributions of Canadian with disabilities than anyone else. Faithful as a heartbeat. Bearing the beams of his love.

– Al Etmanski, author, blogger, advocate and social entrepreneur


When I nominated Ray to receive the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal it was because he exemplified Her Majesty The Queen’s life of service to her people. Ray Cohen’s life was one of both service and determination to increase awareness and enhance opportunities for all people with disabilities. Under his guidance, Abilities magazine became the definitive Canadian source of information and advocacy for disability rights and accessibility. Above all, Ray was a truly fine gentleman, husband, father and friend. I shall miss him greatly.

– The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario


Ray Cohen was my mentor during the early stages of Abilities Arts Festival: A Celebration of Disability Arts and Culture. And what a valuable mentor, teacher and friend he proved to be!

Although I was prepared to sign on as soon as I first heard about the concept from disability activist John Feld, I did have reservations. I was relatively new to Toronto. I didn’t know the “players,” the people with the interest and connections who could best be called upon to provide input and critique ideas.

John’s response was “Not to worry. I’ll introduce you to Ray Cohen. He knows everyone worth knowing. This is right up his alley and he’ll be a great resource.” John did not exaggerate. However, as I soon discovered, Ray’s contributions far exceeded his Rolodex.

Despite the many demands Abilities placed on Ray’s time during those early years of the festival, he nevertheless was consistently available. Ray could be counted upon, be it to meet, talk through ideas, help secure funding and/or to arrange meetings with like-minded people who might offer assistance.

Ray was a hands-on partner, instrumental in many of the earliest festival achievements.

Abilities Arts Festival recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. As was acknowledged at that time, “It was with the support of Ray Cohen that the first tenuous steps of that idea took hold.”

And so it is that we add Abilities Arts Festival: A Celebration of Disability Arts and Culture to the already rich and overflowing legacy Ray Cohen leaves behind—a legacy that has broadened the minds and enriched the lives of countless people across Canada.

– Sharon Wolfe, former producer and artistic director, Abilities Arts Festival


“Did you hear the one about…??” Ray was never more than a couple of keystrokes from a good joke or cartoon. But behind the sparkling eyes was relentless commitment to the rights and aspirations of people labeled disabled. He believed and lived to make spaces for full citizen participation for all. And he put his beliefs into action. His creations: The Abilities Foundation and Abilities magazine are tangible testimony to 25 years and 100 issues of unwavering brilliance, flaunting the world with visions of possibility. The world was, and is, a better place for his laugh and his vision. He was a good friend. He and his leadership will be sorely missed.

– Jack Pierpoint, Inclusion Press International


Ray: The Husband

It is very hard to safely allow myself to think of a world without Raymond without being frozen by sadness. I consider myself to be an extremely fortunate woman for the 20 years that I laughed, cried and then laughed some more. Ray was a man who taught me an abundance of things, a man who reaffirmed the artist I am, and a man who lovingly and softly touched my soul. I am empty yet very full at the same time.

How do I do justice to a man who gave so many people a sense of worth, belonging and affirmation? He taught entire communities how to look at the world differently, and for over half a century, inspired a movement that brought us into the 21st century stronger and more determined.

As it is too often, we don’t realize what we had until it is gone. Raymond was Abilities. It is now our responsibility to continue to make our voices heard, continue to work with one another and not against, continue to draw on inspiration and opportunities.

Raymond is so much a part of the person I am today. For that, I will be eternally grateful. Without him, the essence of my very being has been changed forever.

– Michelle Amerie


Ray: The Friend

A friend is one who knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become and, still, gently allows you to grow. Ray was my friend for 16 years. He was the first male friend I had when I came to Canada. He was my lunch friend, my Skype friend, my Google-chat friend, my let’s-get-a-coffee friend, my let’s-go-see-the-“whatever”-he-felt-like friend, my email-a-funny-story friend. We would meet frequently for lunch on College Street or down in Kensington Market. He explained disability to me and I explained archaeology to him. He explained Canadian mores and I explained university politics. There were numerous dinners with Michelle, Ray’s wife, and Marcia, my wife.

Two events perhaps are exceptionally vivid: We were staying in Paris in the covered Le Passage de l’Ancre near Beaubourg that used to be passage de l’Ancre-Royale, then the passage l’Ancre-Nationale and where around 1637, the first fiacres—the precursor to the taxi—were invented. Michelle and Ray came to visit us and we met them on a fine summer day on the Quai de Montebello, near the square of Rene Viviars. We headed west along Quai Saint-Michel to the bridge of the same name and then to visit Sainte Chapelle with the sun streaming into the chapel. Then we went across the Pont d’Arcole and east until we reached the Pont Louis Phillippe, which we crossed. We then circumnavigated the Ile Saint-Louis. Ray began glad to see us but, as we walked, he became delighted, then joyous, then euphoric, then ecstatic and finally jubilant. I had never realized that he had so many kinds of happiness.

The other event took place in Toronto. The four of us had gone to a movie. When we got to the ticket window, there was a question about where Michelle, who uses a wheelchair, could sit. The manager said that if she did not sit in the particular place that he wanted wheelchairs, he would not allow us to enter. I remember Ray turning to me with blazing eyes and saying we will close the theatre down. And he did.

What will I do without the daily, or even twice-daily, Skype calls?  I don’t know.

– Ezra B. W. Zubrow, Ph.D., F.S.A.


I have known Ray for over 20 years and, when I think about our friendship, I must admit that we became friends the day we met. Ray was very easy to be with and was easily able to make friends wherever he went with whomever he met. We often saw each other through work initiatives and personal celebrations. I still recall meeting with him and his wife Michelle on Huntley Street in Toronto, at either of their homes across the hall or at their favorite sushi place at the street level. In addition to holding fond memories of Ray as a friend, I also remember him as a trusted and committed brother-in-arms in the struggle for inclusion and equality for persons with disabilities. Although Ray lived with his own significant but invisible disability, he always focused his efforts on helping those whose impairments were more obvious and just smiled shyly when anyone referred to his own illness. I already miss his unique sense of humor, his warm and caring friendship and his contribution to the disability movement in Canada and beyond our borders.

To his wife, Michelle, my heart goes out to you because your loss is so much more profound than any of us can imagine, but at this time, we are all feeling a great sense of loss and sorrow.

– Tom Proszowski, former CAF board member


I remember the first time I met Ray. I was immediately struck by his kind, warm, witty and scholarly nature. Ray recommended that I join the Board at the Canadian Abilities Foundation, a position for which I enjoyed for several years. My relationship with Ray, however, developed much beyond our time at CAF. The reason being that Ray was always exploring opportunities for us to collaborate both on personal and professional fronts. We ended up working on several initiatives together and becoming great friends over the years. Ray, I learned so much from you, both as an advocate and as a person. I will miss our lunches, our laughs and your levity. Be well my friend.

– Brendan Pooran, lawyer


Ray: The Networker

Raymond Cohen was the ultimate connector. He loved meeting new people, having conversations, finding and building new allies. He relished making and seeing connections among his people. And his people and connections are vast, dispersed globally, and remarkable each in their own right. He was a great possibility-seer. Ray has continued his engineering even in his passing and his spirit is quite present as we continue to meet and sometimes re-meet one another, discovering our connections and common ground. It made me laugh several times in the week after he died, hearing him say, I told you so. I knew you would really enjoy one another!

Ray was a loyal friend and I loved that about him, and I know so many others experienced that loyalty and attentiveness. His family adored him and that feeling is obviously mutual. His mark on each of our lives is large in that way and treasured. What I loved most, though, was the way he loved his wife, Michelle. His deep admiration and appreciation for her incredible gifts, accomplishments and the way she lives with such grace inspired him and was always in evidence. His exuberance for life was also shown in his enthusiasm for her and his delight in everything about her. I am certain that’s what true love is.

Ray, you are present with us still. I love meeting your people and that you will keep bringing us together and in deeper and deeper ways. I am carrying you in my heart and I will be there for your beloved wife, Michelle. I am honoured to be part of the family. Your hand is still guiding and engineering us, and we will try to live the lessons of your life so fully, lived out loud!

– Lynda Kahn, Inclusion Press International
Ray was the best networker I ever met. He knew a vast collection of amazing people and he really worked at introducing them to one another. The key to his success at this was not to care whether he got anything out of it. He was happy to bring people together and then sit back and enjoy watching them decide what to do. I remember meeting Marcia Rioux, long-time CAF board member, and Ezra Zubrow, a fascinating archaeologist, for the first time at the Abilities’ office. Ray introduced us, got the discussion going, and then sat back. After about 20 minutes, he stood up and said, “I’m heading to the dentist. Lock up when you’re done.” Amazing things happened with Ray because he didn’t care who got credit. Bringing together the right people and allowing them to set the agenda requires courage and a considerable amount of self-assurance. I see this as something that will remain central to the Canadian Abilities Foundation as we continue on without Ray: getting the right people into the room and allowing them to help change the lives of Canadians with disabilities.

– Cameron Graham, CAF board chair


Ray: The Business Client

Ray was a good man who had always been kind to me. He was a customer who also became a loyal friend—one with whom I shared many comedic videos, jokes and interesting tidbits as they arose. He had an amazing sense of humour. Ray was very strong and brave to have endured all he did in terms of his physical illness atop business issues while at the same time maintaining a pleasant attitude. He was a very gentle soul with a large heart. The world has lost one of its best. Ray will be sadly missed. Rest peacefully my friend.

– Paul Schillinger, president, Colour Systems Incorporated, Abilities’ printer


Ray: The Mentor

Ray Cohen provided me with some of my earliest experiences writing and editing in a professional setting. I first met him during the summer of 1994, when I did a volunteer internship with Abilities magazine. It was while volunteering that summer that he published a short travel piece for the issue I helped prepare. I also assisted with updating the database and editing other submissions for the magazine. This led to other articles and volunteer opportunities with Abilities.

Cohen was also a regular presence at People in Motion, an annual exhibition showcasing products and services for people with disabilities held every June in Toronto. We usually spotted each other and said, “Hi.” In fact, he made a point of saying hello to every person he met.

It is through these experiences that I gained professional writing experience, and hands-on knowledge about the publishing industry. We even had at least one conversation on how to develop professionally, which I found extremely beneficial.

Another thing we had in common is that we both received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. Unfortunately, we didn’t cross paths during the gala. It would have been good to celebrate and share some of the evening with him.

Ray was always friendly and hospitable, and deeply passionate about affirming the needs and rights of people with disabilities. This is what I will remember most about him: his support and admiration for the disability community, of which I’m a member.

Thank you Ray.

– Donald Barrie, writer


Though we sometimes disagreed on how hard-hitting disability media should be and what it should ultimately stand for (I wrote an article about this for a 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism) Ray Cohen was always there to listen and was a very warm human being who worked tirelessly to keep Canada’s most recognized disability magazine afloat. He definitely gave me my start and the first features I ever wrote were for him.

Ray believed in all of us: “People with disabilities are tenacious, they’re innovative, because they have to be, and they’re compassionate because they understand,” he told me in 2007. “That’s true of many people, but because of the cards they’ve been dealt, people with disabilities have these qualities more finely developed.”

Well, he should’ve been talking about himself because Ray embodied those qualities like no one else and they were embedded in the fabric of his mission to provide information, inspiration and opportunity to all people with disabilities: a mission that will take  all his belief in us to carry on because, as Ray always knew, there’s still work to be done.

– Aaron Boverman, writer


Ray Cohen will go down in my books as the guy who gave me one of the coolest opportunities in my life.

I first met Ray in the early ‘90s when I was editor of the Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal. I was always looking for stories about interesting Toronto entrepreneurs and man oh man did Cohen fit the bill. The thing I remember most from our first meeting, at my office in First Canadian Place, is us laughing.

Here was a guy with passion all right, and his cause was dead serious but he was hilarious. And charming.

No sooner had he explained his magazine to me than he had me volunteering to write a feature profile for it. And thus I found myself interviewing, on the phone, Canada’s only deaf Member of the Ontario Legislature, Gary Malkowski.

I’ve interviewed thousands of people over 30 years of journalism, but that one I‘ll never forget.

Turns out that for a deaf guy, Malkowski proved he could hear better than scores of other politicians. Sorta like Cohen, come to think of it.

And then, years later, I heard that Ray had hired Jaclyn Law, one of the brightest sparks in Canadian journalism as Abilities’ managing editor. From the get-go I sensed that Cohen was alarmingly perspicacious. Hiring Jaclyn clinched it.

– Peter Carter, editor and writer


Ray: The Patient

It feels as if I have known Ray all my life. He always found a way to ask how I was doing in all his visits with me. On one occasion, I mentioned some computer troubles, and right away he offered to get me in touch with some IT friends. That is how he was: you never needed to ask, he would offer his support and help before you asked. His love for people and life was very much expressed in all he did but the focal point of his love was his wife, Michelle, and his children. All noticed his wittiness and smile.

Since I got the shocking news of his passing, his last visit has been echoing in my mind. That day he had no appointment with me but he just wanted to pass by for a minute to let me know how he was doing and, most importantly, he wanted me to see him because, as he put it, ” You are my guy!”

I was looking forward to our next visit, which is now going to be missed forever.

– Dr. Almasi, family physician


Ray:  The Boss

We all have people in our past who meant something, who, for better or for worse, helped shaped the person we became. Ray Cohen was my first full-time boss after university. Come to think of it, he was my only full-time boss, since, after working with him for 13 years, I left to expand my own business.

For a very long time, Ray was in my life on a day-to-day basis. We went to each other’s weddings, we cheered each other’s milestones. He knew all my bad habits, I knew his. He appreciated my strengths and I truly appreciated his.

Like any pair of colleagues, Ray and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on all work issues. But we were simpatico when it came to the things that mattered more: friendships, family, laughter. He had a sharp and wicked sense of humour. He was a warm hugger. He was the pal you wanted by your side in times of crisis, because he always came through.

Ray was truly passionate about his work, so much so that the lines were constantly blurred between colleagues and friends, between after-hours meetings and social life. Ray never turned his back on anyone. Whether you were a friend, family or co-worker, often even a complete stranger, he was compelled to get involved. He tried hard to fix what he could. And he freely gave out warm hugs and bad puns in the process. Indisputably, Ray made a difference.

– Lisa Bendall, former managing editor of Abilities


Ray taught me a great deal about work and life—and about compassion, inclusion, possibility and hope. I was the managing editor of Abilities from 2005 to 2009, and I was its copy editor until 2011. Ray’s dedication to improving the lives of Canadians with disabilities was both unwavering and inspiring. He was also a great connector, bringing people together for a common cause. I will always be thankful for Ray’s generosity, warmth and kindnesses big and small. We’ve lost someone who truly was making the world a better place.

– Jaclyn Law, former managing editor of Abilities


As managing editor of Abilities, I had the pleasure of working closely with Ray. His passion for the magazine was inspiring—and kept Abilities afloat for over 25 years, which is not a small feat in this industry. But what I’ll remember most about working with Ray is less about work and more about kindness. Nearly every day, Ray would pop his head onto my computer via video Skype. He would always take the time to ask (with sincerity few bosses can muster) how I was doing. No matter how he was feeling, he always seemed concerned with me and with all of the people he cared about.

He talked often and with deep affection about his children, grandchildren and wife, Michelle. They were his immediate family but, as someone looking in, it also appeared as if Ray had cultivated a large extended family—his close network of friends and many in the disability community.

He seemed to know everybody. As I sat at the booth at the most recent People in Motion show, countless people (their disappointment in seeing me there in Ray’s place evident) asked, “Where’s Ray? When will he be here?”

I know we will all be saying that to ourselves for a long time to come because it seems impossible that he is gone. We will miss him dearly, but his legacy at Abilities will live on with the many people he has touched through his work and his friendship.

– Jennifer Rivkin, former managing editor of Abilities


Ray and I worked together for over 17 years. I started with issue four when Ray moved to Toronto. At that time, there were only the two of us working for the organization, putting out 75,000 copies of Abilities on a quarterly basis from Ray’s basement.

I never really got a sense of the impact of our work until I went to Independence ‘92, an international conference on disability issues held in Vancouver in 1992. Being there, with Ray, was like being with a celebrity. By this time, he was well known because of his entertaining and sometimes controversial Abilities editorials, entitled “My Word.” (He once included a John Callahan cartoon of a woman wearing a Madonna-style cone-shaped bra with a miniature rabbi on each cup. The caption was, “I said cones not Cohens.” He loved the name connection, and thought it was funny—others not so much. That editorial won us the most hate mail out of all his columns.)

At Independence ’92, everyone wanted a chance to come and say hello to him and thank him for the good work he was doing. I will never forget one young guy with a spinal cord injury coming up to us with tears in his eyes, saying that Abilities had changed his life. That was the moment I knew we were doing something good in the world.

– Gillian Lynne-Davies


Ray: The Advocate

Ray Cohen was a friend and a colleague. We worked together at Canadian Abilities Foundation, or should I say I watched Ray work and I tried to help out. Ray was completely devoted to his work, which was really his passion. He believed with every ounce of his strength that people with disabilities should have a different life than they do now. He wouldn’t limit his thinking to just jobs, or transportation, or legal rights. He was driven to right the wrongs he saw people with disabilities endure in every facet of their lives.

He believed that by making information available to people he would improve their lives. And he did. Abilities magazine was the vehicle that got into thousands of people’s hands, empowering them in so many ways. No one else could convince advertisers of the merit of advertising to people with disabilities like Ray could. No one else could convince funders of the merit of new ways of communicating as Ray could. No one could keep a magazine and an organization like CAF alive and thriving for 27 years like Ray could. These are the accomplishments that Ray was striving for and they should be carried on in his memory although no one will ever do them the way Ray could.

– Phyllis Yaffe, former CAF board chair


Ray: The Brother

Ray was very much a self-made person, despite little in the way of formal education—he only graduated from grade seven. Right from an early age, he had a passion for helping. At around age nine he loved dressing up as Zorro, complete with homemade mask, cape and swords fashioned out of sticks so he could save imaginary people in distress. He was so into it he had me, two-and-a-half years younger, believing he actually was Zorro.

Our mother, who fled Germany to England in the 1930s as the Nazis strengthened their hold, was a free-thinker who despised racism and prejudice. Our father, who was English, a Cockney, was a tailor. We were a family that, despite our mother’s Jewish descent, was raised without formal religious training. And that, plus his decision to move on in life without formal higher-education left Raymond seeing himself with infinite possibilities, receptive to both the conventional and the unconventional, which are the foundation of the successful life he built for himself, which has taken him from working with people with addictions to kids with disabilities, when he first saw the need for what became the vehicle for his life’s work: Abilities and the foundation that publishes the magazine and more.

My brother Ray was warm and generous but, at times, he could be obstinate and stubborn. He took great pride in achieving all he had without having formal qualifications. He was also quick-witted with a wonderful sense of humour.

I still recall the time when we were kids, when Ray surprised his older brother, Michael, by duct-taping him tightly to a chair, then proceeding to rub peanut butter and jam all over Michael’s face, infuriating him. But decades later, Michael got his revenge. It was at Ray’s 60th birthday party and Michael struck.  Along with a couple of other family members, my older brother duct-taped Ray to a chair, and then came the peanut butter and jelly on the face.

And oh how Raymond laughed.

– Joanie St. Clair


To help ensure that Ray’s work can be continued, donations to the Canadain Disabilities Foundation can be made at


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