"Up to age 12, I lived with my family in a NYC housing project in Brooklyn. Then, my parents followed the 'American Dream,' bought a home, and moved us out to Long Beach, Long Island," she said. She went on to earn her bachelor's degree in both French and Spanish and became certified to teach both.
Fulfilling the job of a teacher would come later. First, she would pursue a life-long dream to be a "woman of the world." "I wanted to travel, and I had heard that if you worked for an airline, you could get free or discount travel," Fern said. In 1977, she began what would become an 11-year career in the airline industry. Fern enjoyed the many positions of this career, which took her all over the world. Eventually, she would end up earning a master's in travel and tourism.
"In 1997, I decided to return to my roots and give back to society," she said. This is when she made use of her teaching degree, teaching at a public high school in East Harlem, N.Y. She taught French as well as Spanish here, until 2004, when she left fully tenured. During this same time, she also studied collage and mixed media art in NYC. She was thoroughly enjoying managing and living her life.
At the beginning of 2003, she felt the first symptoms. Experiencing extreme fatigue after normal activities, like bicycle riding and exercising, came first. Next came a loss of balance, causing her to trip and fall regularly. As a foreign language teacher, the symptom of slurred speech was one of the hardest. Then came the breathing difficulties, which were shrugged off as a symptom of her asthma and allergies. It was January of 2004, after going through numerous doctors and a long period of tests, that Fern got the devastating diagnosis of ALS. The symptoms she had been living with finally had a name.
Cohen continued to teach for the remainder of the school year. However, when she put in a request to teach at a school without steps, due to the fact that steps were nearly impossible for her to endure, the request was not fulfilled. She was told by the Department of Education that her needs could not be accommodated. It was then that she was forced to resign and collect disability.
Not being used to staying at home, Fern had a hard time managing this new life. ALS did not change who she was on the inside. She still had the intellect that would have allowed her to continue teaching. However, it wasn't seen that way by others. In Fern's words, "I find that they see the wheelchair and don't see that there is a person sitting there."
For Fern, isolation is the most devastating of ALS symptoms. Many of her friends have disappeared since her diagnosis with ALS and she says that even family members can be uncomfortable in her presence. However, the friendships she lacks in that area are greatly outnumbered by the ones she has acquired through the Internet. Most of the positive impact she has had on others has come from her outreach efforts in meeting people on social sites for those with disabilities, as well as through her blog.
While having ALS has forced Fern to use a communication device for speaking and to make use of aides for various tasks, it has not stopped her from looking at positive aspects of life. On this she said, "ALS has forced me to slow down, mentally and physically and see things I never stopped to look at before... Always fiercely self-sufficient and independent, I have had to learn to ask for and accept help. And with all the medications I take, there is no room for carelessness. If I could communicate with every ALS patient, I would say: Don't wait to die; live in a way that allows you to realize a dream. And don't dwell on what you can't do, but rather make the best of what you can still do."
She definitely lives up to that statement every second of every day.
*I originally published this on the former Disaboom via the former Yahoo Contributor Network.