A Grant Maker Opens Up Her Private Life Public to Show That a Disability Is More Than a Diagnosis
In her writing, speeches, and interviews, Rebecca Cokley readily shares intimate details about her life. Growing up, she regularly watched the television show L.A. Law and was inspired by actor Jimmy Smits — or, more specifically, his character Victor Sifuentes, civil-rights lawyer and defender of the downtrodden. As a side gig after college, she worked at Victoria’s Secret, with a stint as a bra-sales specialist before moving into management. And she was once kicked out of bartending school.
Making her personal life public serves a larger cause. Cokley — who manages the Ford Foundation’s
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Making her personal life public serves a larger cause. Cokley — who manages the Ford Foundation’s first U.S. disability portfolio — wants to dismantle stereotypes and one-dimensional depictions of the 61 million people in America with disabilities. She has achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism. So did her parents, who met at a Little People of America conference. So do two of her three children.
Every family has someone with a disability, she says. “That’s a radical idea for nondisabled people. So it’s important to remind them that we do have families. We do care about people, and we have people who care about us. We can be your eccentric auntie with the convertible who listens to ’80s new-wave music way too loud. Just as we can be your uncle who went to Vietnam and still today is struggling with PTSD.”
At Ford, Cokley is using her platform to call for a “massive increase” in disability grant making, which she says amounts to barely a whisper. “Yet we’re 61 million people,” she says. “Proportionally, that’s bad grant making.”
Cokley also says foundations and nonprofits too often assume their role is to help people overcome their disabilities. “I don’t want to overcome dwarfism,” she says. “My dwarfism is a fundamental part of who I am.” As a child, she saw her parents work passionately to make the world a better place for everyone. Their friends included blind lawyers as well as scientists with cerebral palsy. No one told Cokley that a disability was limiting. Rather, she found, it was people without disabilities who tried to assign limits through their attitudes and prejudices. For instance, the bartending school that sent her packing pointed to her height; the school guaranteed job placements, and she was told on the first day of class that she would never be hired.
“I would not be who I am today at all if I weren’t a little person,” she says. “It is more than a diagnosis; it is my culture.”