Remarks on the Acceptance of the Judith Heumann Champion of Justice Award at Disability Rights Maryland 09/20/2023

Rebecca Cokley
3 min readSep 29, 2023
A white redheaded dwarf woman in a black dress standing next to a tall African-American man wearing a blue suit.

To say I am honored to be the recipient of the Judy Heumann Champion of Justice award is an understatement. Thank you to Megan and all the disability rights Maryland staff I am so humbled to accept an award named after my friend and mentor. Furthermore, to get this award from my friend and hero Wade Henderson (note that he shares that title with his amazing and brilliant wife Marsha) is so incredible.

I met Judy when I was 6, literally riding through Berkeley on the back of my godmother Ann Cupola-Freeman’s wheelchair. Ann is a Camp Jened alumni and in many ways was my introduction to the cross-disability rights movement. And one of Judy’s best friends.

Embracing Risk and Reflecting Honesty is a mantra of my CEO Darren Walker, and one that he definitely shared with Judy. She and I used to talk about the importance of seizing the moment, to quote Hamilton “not throwing away our shot.” And in many ways it was that drive, that ambition that paved the paths she trod. Whether it be her work with Kitty Cone planning the 504 sit in, to building the foundation of the disability community infrastructure, which we continue to grow today. And in all these roles she spoke truth to power.

I always called Judy when I was at a crossroads. She used to talk about how she knew she was subbing in for my mom and found it to be such an honor I remember talking to her about two different jobs, one safe one that had been my dream job since I was a kid, and one new opportunity at an organization that had never done disability rights full-time and had a much bigger sandbox. She told me to take the latter because of who it would bring me into contact with, how it was an investment in our community to have me there, and that I would be able to grow and do great things. And we did. We successfully championed getting 14 democratic candidates for president to create disability platforms in 2020. That had never happened before.

In writing these remarks I realized how much of my path echoed hers. Her time in the Clinton Administration, my time working for President Obama. Her going to the World Bank, me going to the Center for American Progress. And she literally laid the path for me to follow in her footsteps at the Ford Foundation where I’ve built on her work and over the last three years managed to move over $50 million dollars to disability rights and justice organizations, with an emphasis on BIPOC and women led projects and organizations, and including supporting leaders and organizations in the protection and Advocacy space. Because we both so deeply believe I know that civil rights are only gained through the grid of activists in collaboration with the determination of lawyers. So I would be remiss tonight if I didn’t acknowledge the hard work of those in this room tonight, including many of the other honorees.

Judy loved my kids, they were part of the Judy Heumann zoo crew, a collection of families that Judy and Jorge would take to the zoo, less than a block from their house. When my oldest had his 504 meeting a few years ago, they asked him if he knew why he was there and he was like “yeah, my Aunt Judy made me.” And even though she’s gone, she continues to drive change in each generation, and I can only hope my contributions to this work both make her proud and make our community stronger. 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.