Rebecca Cokley named 2020 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life

Disability activist Rebecca Cokley was honored as the 2020 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life in a Zoom event on Wednesday March 24, and gave a keynote address on how to achieve a truly inclusive democracy. 

“When I found myself thinking about what an inclusive democracy would look like, I still was not sure,” Cokley said during her talk. “Fundamentally, an inclusive democracy is one where for my community, people with disabilities, we are able to exercise our right to access the rights coming in the infrastructure and responsibilities that are the cornerstone of our democracy without racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and, for disabled people, ableism.”

Thinking back to her first experience of an inclusive democracy, Cokley remembers voting with her parents at a young age. While her mother was able to go into polling places to vote, Cokley needed to assist her father, a wheelchair user. “The person at the desk would hand me a ballot or walk back to the car with me where they would lean on the window and hang out while he took the same opportunity as everyone had to cast a vote but not a private vote,” she explained.

Having an inclusive democracy means that everyone benefits, Cokley explained, not just people with disabilities. “It reminds society that when you make the world more accessible for people with disabilities, it becomes more accessible for everyone … So when thinking about what an inclusive democracy would look like, I am making it inclusive to people with disabilities. It would have the added effect of making it more inclusive for everyone,” said Cokely. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, disability is defined as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major activities of such an individual.” This definition is wide enough to include disabled veterans, mothers with postpartum depression, children in Flint, MI who are still fighting for clean water, the deaf community and the individuals with long-lasting symptoms of COVID-19. 

“Often society tries to nail down who is and who isn’t disabled,” Cokley explained. “The important thing, which is why I use that definition, is the power of grounding that defines and activities of daily life.”

Opponents of the disabled community that value ableism, who have a “desire to keep people with disabilities largely disconnected from mainstream society,” present daily challenges for people with disabilities, Cokley explained in her address.  

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Cokley estimated that one-third of the over 30 million people affected by the coronavirus in the U.S. will have symptoms that last for months, or even years, after infection.

“Being a person with a disability on the front-end of the [COVID-19] pandemic gives you a certain type of perspective,” she explained. “I knew a year ago that people with disabilities would be the most disproportionately impacted and represent a disproportionate number of deaths.”

The moderator was Monika Mitra (HS), and Nancy Lurie Marks, Associate Professor of Disability Policy and Director of the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, stated that “Cokley’s leadership embodies a rallying cry of the disability rights movement. Her work has helped to ensure that our country’s democratic institutions represent all Americans including Americans with disabilities.” 

Provost Carol Fierke, who presented Cokley with her medal, emphasized that “Cokley’s work recognizes that disability rights play out across social issues including those related to education, poverty, immigration, rights of parents with disabilities and police violence.” 

Cokley served as the executive director of the National Council on Disability (NCD). After, from 2017 to 2020, she led the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Cokley currently serves as the first Disability Rights Program Officer at the Ford Foundation. 

Cokley was supposed to receive the award last year, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cokley’s keynote speech, “Achieving an Inclusive Democracy: What It Means for Every Voice to Count” was sponsored by the Ethics Center on behalf of the Office of the President. According to the website, “The Richman Distinguished Fellowship in Public Life was created by Brandeis alumna Dr. Carol Richman Saivetz ’69, along with her children, Michael Saivetz ’97 and Aliza Saivetz Glasser ’01, in honor of Carol’s parents, Fred and Rita Richman. The award is funded by the generosity of the Richman and Saivetz families.”

Editor’s Note: Editor-in-Chief Sabrina Chow is an undergraduate research fellow at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy and did not contribute to the writing or editing of this article.

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