Fran Cohen

Kristi Foster
A 2011 portrait of Fran Cohen. Photo: Kristi Foster

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, Special to the Jewish Light

Though pleased by the recognition from the St. Louis Jewish Light, Fran Cohen disputes the term “unsung.” Laughing, she says, “Lately I’ve been sung quite a bit — and I’m kind of surprised about it.” 

Cohen recently was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In addition, the Washington University School of Medicine presented her with the Alumni Achievement Award for her work as an occupational therapist and for her other civic contributions. 

Also, along with Joan Lipkin, Cohen was highlighted in a gallery exhibition at the Missouri History Museum that celebrated the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1995, Cohen and Lipkin founded The DisAbility Project, a collaboration of individuals that develops performance materials around the culture of disability.

“Fran Cohen is a force of nature,” says Lipkin, who also is a playwright and artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company. “She has worked on behalf of causes as varied as reproductive choice, the Arthritis Foundation and organic gardening. But it is her work with people with disabilities that is most exemplary.”

Lipkin continues: “Fran and I co-founded the DisAbility Project to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities to express themselves on stage through a combination of both art and education. We have performed for almost 100,000 people, been written up internationally and shifted the hearts and minds of both performers and audiences.”

Wait — there is more. Lipkin adds, “Fran has been unflagging in her commitment, almost always at rehearsal and performances with a word of encouragement — and when needed, providing dangerously good brownies.”

Cohen remembers first meeting Lipkin. “I was teaching at Washington University in the Occupational Therapy school when I read that Joan Lipkin had attended a workshop by Joseph Chaiken, a director who had a stroke and then became interested in disability-themed theater,” says Cohen. “I called to invite her to give a lecture to my students, but Joan said she would rather just come over and talk.” 

That talk led to many more talks, as Cohen was acquainted with a lot of people in St. Louis working with the disabled. “Joan and I convened a number of them at the school, and told them our idea for a program,” Cohen recalls. “We wanted people with disabilities to perform as an ensemble, putting on vignettes about the problems people with disabilities face. We thought we could do this by using humor to introduce serious issues, tell stories about such topics as employment, sexuality and individual disabilities.” 

The project has been a big success. “We have been well received in schools, in churches and at conventions. The whole idea was to change people’s perceptions about what disability is and what it is not,” says Cohen. “Look, I am not a theater person and I am not a writer. I am a motivator. I hate to see anyone waste their intellect or talent.” 

Arthritis certainly can be disabling, and Cohen has spent time helping the Arthritis Foundation raise money. She also has served on the board of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “I am an active, pro-choice woman,” says Cohen, “so I do what I can to help.” 

Cohen grew up “alongside the Central West End,” just across from Hamilton Elementary School. “I learned to play tennis there,” Cohen says. “Growing up, I was sort of a jock and tomboy. I would walk from my house to Forest Park, where I would ice skate or go horseback riding.” 

Cohen has been a member of the Jewish Community Center since she was a young girl. At Washington University, Cohen played on the tennis team and also participated in  field hockey and racquetball. Over the years, she has enjoyed swimming, golf, yoga and Pilates. 

“I thought I wanted to be a doctor,” says Cohen. “My aunt had a B.S. and a master’s degree in nursing – and this was 60 years ago, so that was really something – and she told me about occupational therapy.” That sounded good to Cohen. 

“I have always been interested in helping people,” says Cohen who retired in 2002. 

“I learned this from my parents, and from Judaism. Healing the world is a Jewish value, and that struck a chord with me.”

Fran Cohen

AGE:  82

FAMILY:  Married to Gerald, a lawyer; four children, eight grandchildren 

HOME:  Westwood

OCCUPATION:   Retired occupational therapist  

FAVORITE PASTIME:  Spending time with family, reading, going to the symphony and the theater