This blog is the first of a monthly series by Handicap International Goodwill Ambassador Jessica Cox, a motivational speaker, pilot, wife, and disability rights advocate who was born without arms.
“You can’t do that!”
I’ve heard this line more times than I can count—from kids on the playground, adults who thought they were protecting me, strangers, and even from my own inner voice in darker moments.
When people see me for the first time, they tend to view me through the lens of their assumptions of what it means to be a woman with a disability. They see me in terms of limitation—of all the things they assume I can’t do. They simply cannot imagine living without hands or arms.
Yet life without arms is my reality. I don't know how to live any other way. From birth, my toes, feet, and legs have been my fingers, hands, and arms. When I feel an itch on the top of my head, I reach my right foot up and scratch it with my big and second toe. I use my big toe as my thumb and my second toe as my index finger. I type with my toes and drive a car with my feet and legs. And yes, I fly an airplane without arms.
Fortunately, I was blessed to be the child of “can do” parents. Growing up, they fostered a drive within me to overcome physical challenges through creativity and adaptation. While I’ve gained some physical and technical skills that most other people never do, like becoming a black belt in Taekwondo, other tasks that might seem simple, like getting dressed independently, took years of trial and error to master. Despite many frustrations and setbacks along the way, I’ve learned to banish the words, “I can’t.”
Physical challenges aside, my greatest difficulties in life have been the emotional and social implications of being different. As a child, the isolation of being the only kid without arms and the stares, negative comments, and low expectations of others made me feel like I was less of a person.
The quest of overcoming these challenges drove me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. The slow build-up of small achievements, and the love, support, and mentorship of family, teachers, and friends allowed me to finally feel like a whole person by the time I finished college. My unrepentant self-respect and self-acceptance is my greatest triumph and has given me the power to insist that society accept me as I am.
It also led me to take on my greatest fear: flying. In 2005, I made the commitment to become a pilot. It wasn’t easy. Doubt lingered in the minds of my instructors, family, and friends. There were so many processes involved in flying that I had to adapt for my body—routine preflight maintenance, strapping myself in the four-point safety harness, or navigating with a yoke during landing. But, I persevered through three flight instructors, four airplanes, and 80 hours of flight training in three different states to earn my wings on October 11, 2008. I am the first person in the world without arms to earn a pilot’s certificate.
At the time I was learning how to fly, I was also in the early stages of my career as a motivational speaker. After becoming a pilot, my career “took off.” Over the ten years of my career, speaking all over America and in 20 other countries, the story of learning to fly remains my most powerful example of what is possible when a person says, “I can.”
Trips abroad, especially in developing countries, also taught me a hard truth: Many people with disabilities in low-income countries never get the opportunity to rise above those who say: “you can’t.”
Often viewed as the result of a curse or a parent’s sins, people with disabilities are denied access to education, job opportunities, and even basic health care. Some people with disabilities, like a woman born without arms I met in Ghana, are told they should have been killed at birth.
Being born in the U.S., I’m granted access to the same rights and opportunities and as everyone else thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), now celebrating its 25th anniversary. People can tell me I can’t do something, but their words can’t prevent me from trying. It’s an injustice that this isn’t the case everywhere.
I was at a loss for what to do about this situation until 2013, when I was invited to travel to Ethiopia with Handicap International to see the organization’s inclusive education programs. In a country where only 3% of children with disabilities go to school, Handicap International was working to enroll and support hundreds of children with disabilities. In 2008, Ethiopia ratified of the Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (a treaty inspired by the ADA), which says, among other things, that children with disabilities have the right to learn. By educating parents, teachers, and school administrators about this right, and making sure that schools are accessible and have trained teachers and appropriate resources, children who had never gone to school are finally getting an education.
I had the chance to speak at four schools where Handicap International works and was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic welcomes I received. Children with disabilities who had been taught that they were worthless, and had been kept hidden at home, told me how their lives had changed since going to school. The power of a law and a change in society’s attitude allowed the students to envision a future of “I can:” having friends, going to university, getting a job, and even having a family of their own.
After this trip, Handicap International asked my husband Patrick and I to become Goodwill Ambassadors. Our mission: to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and show the world what people with disabilities can accomplish when they can access their rights.
As part of that mission, I’m thrilled to launch my new monthly Handicap International blog: “The World at my Feet.” Expect to hear more stories about my work with Handicap International, lessons I’ve learned living as a woman without arms, and insights from other disability rights advocates. I hope my blog will become a conversation, so please email me your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d love to hear your ideas for future blog topics.