Remarks by Rebecca Cokley at the NY Women’s Foundation Celebrating Women Breakfast

Rebecca Cokley
5 min readMay 17, 2022
Three women standing against a blue and white backdrop reading “NY Women’s Foundation. One is an African and Indigenous ancestry with curly shoulder length hair and a dress that has sheer black sleeves and a blue flowered pattern. Next to her is an Korean American woman in a grey suit with a grey tie and a white shirt. Next to her is a white, achondroplastic dwarf woman with red hair and freckles wearing a Black sleeveless jumpsuit.

Hi, my name is Rebecca Cokley. I am a redheaded woman, with a glorious abundance of freckles, wearing a black jumpsuit, and a pair of shoes I gifted myself when I joined the Ford foundation.

So thankful to my friend and colleague Ana Olivera and the entire NY Women’s Foundation team. To my fellow award winners, it is amazing to get to share the stage with you. It is such a tremendous honor to be recognized for my work to amplify the issues facing disabled women.

I want to call into the space the memory of Janet Riccio a longtime board member who served as a beacon for this amazing foundation to step into the disability grantmaking. In Janet’s name, I want to welcome all the people with disabilities and chronic illnesses in the room. Those of you who openly identify, but also those of you for whom it is still not safe in either personal or professional spaces. To the person in the room living with mental illness, I see you. To the cancer survivor, you count too. To the person with alopecia areata. I see you. And I welcome you to the space. Our community is infinitely more powerful for your presence and I am strengthened by sharing space with you. I also want to acknowledge all the folks in the audience who broke our new shoes, that doesn’t make you part of the DisCo, or the disability community, but we acknowledge your pain.

People like me weren’t in ballrooms like this, at events like this, unless we were hired entertainment. People with disabilities were left to 8F jobs, food, filth, fetching, folding, filing, flowers, festive, and friendly. When my mom, also a little person like me, was first considered for tenure, she was turned down, for only being able to reach the bottom six inches on a chalkboard. Today we are 32 years after the passage of the ADA and we still have so far to go.

In 2013, when I gave birth to my daughter the anesthesiologist encouraged my OBGYN to sterilize me. Said “You’ve had two now. People like you don’t need anymore.” While this may shock you, The Supreme Court case that allowed the involuntary sterilization of disabled women is still law. Ana mentioned that case in her remarks, Buck v. Bell. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was noted for citing “three generations of imbeciles are more than enough” Buck v. Bell is 95 years old this year. It’s still law and its relevance is weighing heavily on the disability community in this polarizing moment. It is not lost on me that if it were today, Justice Holmes would be talking about my family, as my mother, myself, and my daughter, are all people with disabilities.

But there is hope. In 2015 the CEO of the Ford Foundation launched his commitment to social justice, and it centered racial justice, gender justice, LGBT justice and immigrant justice. For my community, we call that ABD, all but disability. And we pushed back. Loudly. And unlike the countless times that people with disabilities were erased before, Darren listened. He invited us and he realized that there was this incredible lack of knowledge, and a decent amount of bias, when it came to disability inclusion in philanthropy. When he learned that Less than 2% of U.S. based human rights grantmaking goes to support the advocacy efforts tied to the disability community. Pre-covid, over 61 million people, he tasked my good friend and mentor, Noorain Khan in helping grow this work inside of the foundation and she brought on Judy Heumann and Catherine Hyde Townsend to advise on how Ford needed to change its work internally and externally to promote inclusion.

Disability and Poverty are causes and consequences of each other and that has never been made more clear than the pandemic, a global mass disabling event. That is why our strategy has focused on economic justice as a priority in addition to building the field of the next generation of leaders with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

In the inaugural year we moved $10M. We supported the strengthening of legacy organizations disabled people and their families depend on, and started building new ones. A National Disabled Journalists Association, a Disability and Civil Rights law clinic at NY Law School, and we just witnessed the launch of a Disability and Economic Justice Collaborative at the Century Foundation. We are funding the crunching of more accurate data and supporting the telling of the real stories of people with disabilities by people with disabilities.

Right now, 17 foundations have partnered with Ford to join the President’s Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy. And over 50 have taken a pledge to include disability in their grantmaking and among their staff. But that’s not nearly enough. If you care about education, we will never increase graduation rates without students with disabilities. We will never end poverty as long as it’s legally enforced for people with disabilities through subminimum wage and asset limits. Women’s issues? Over 20 states allow the removal of a child from a parent (mostly women) solely on the basis of the mother having a disability diagnosis. Mass incarceration? Prisons are disproportionately filled with disabled people, and create disabled people. If there is no disability lens on your work, you’re not maximizing your efforts.

In addition to my colleagues at Ford, I want to thank my Rockwood sisters Keesha Gaskins Nathan and Teresa Younger for entertaining my endless questions about grantmaking as the relative newbie to the space. My Obama family. And most of all my amazing and supportive husband Patrick, and my kids Jackson, Kaya, and Kendrick, none of whom were able to make it today because it’s standardized testing week at school.

Women will never thrive, until women with disabilities are at the table. And if your table is inaccessible, then you need to redesign it, with them. We are disproportionately poor. Disproportionately discriminated against in school, work, and healthcare. Your grantmaking will never be effective, as long as disabled women are not centered in your work.

So I welcome you all to join me, to ensure that your philanthropy can truly drive the change its craving, because when you grantmake centering women with disabilities, you intentionally lift up marginalized women across every other community. I conclude with the words of my big sister Representative Ayanna Pressley who said, at the launch of the Disability and Economic Justice Collaborative “We cannot be here for scraps. We mist be here for liberation.” Thank you.



Rebecca Cokley

Rebecca Cokley is a philantropic buffalo, 3 x Obama Appointee, writer, pundit, & activist who doesn’t believe anyone should wait over 30 yrs for civil rights.