By Jessica Cox – I’m sitting here typing this with my toes, and that’s maybe a great way to introduce myself. My name is Jessica Cox and this is not a stunt — you see I was born without arms as the result of a birth defect.
As you can imagine growing up with such an obvious difference was difficult, but thankfully my parents never let me feel sorry for myself. They wouldn’t let anyone treat me differently and never, ever let me say two words: “I can’t.”
My mother enrolled me into dance, swimming and even Taekwondo classes as a child. At an early age, I suffered from self-esteem issues and each of these presented a challenge.
I was absolutely terrified by the idea of dancing in front of an audience and I couldn’t imagine doing Taekwondo at first. But I will never forget the applause I got when I danced for the first time on stage, or the words my first Taekwondo teacher told my Mom: “I don’t care if your daughter doesn’t have arms, as long as she has a good attitude.” It may sound cliché but I’ve come to believe that your attitude really is everything, particularly your attitude in facing a challenge.
Attitude, persistence and creativity are what got me through all sorts of trials in my life, from learning how to tie my shoes with my toes, to learning to get dressed by myself — to yes learning how to type with my toes. Eventually I managed to become fully independent, got a college degree from the University of Arizona and a couple of Taekwondo black belts, and I also learned to drive a car with my feet.
People were so impressed by my accomplishments that they invited me to speak about my life story, and that really changed my life because I learned that talking about my situation was empowering to me and inspiring to other people. But you know what? In the back of my mind I still knew that people treated me differently, and I longed for social acceptance. For people to really believe what I knew — that I could do everything and anything with my feet. But what could I do to prove that?
Then one day, just after I’d finished speaking at a Rotary Club in Tucson, something surprising happened. A man came up to me and asked me if I’d like to go up in his small plane and see what that was like. To be honest I was completely terrified of flying and had been since I was a child, but before I could say “no” my father (who had come to hear me speak) said, “of course she will.”
That’s when I remembered that attitude is everything, when you’re facing a challenge, and overcoming fear can be empowering. So just a little while later I went up in a small plane for the first time, and I just couldn’t believe how incredible it was to see the world like that. The pilot asked if I’d like to put the yoke in my foot, and after I did that I was hooked — and I said, “I’d like to become a pilot.”
“If I can fly an airplane, what is it that you think you can’t do?”
Thanks to some amazing people and a lot of hard work, I solo’d and got my pilot’s license in 2008. For me learning to fly represented the fulfillment of so many of my dreams and was the most invigorating and empowering thing I’d ever done.
When I landed the plane I didn’t even realize how so many other people were going to be inspired by what I’d achieved. I ended up on television all over the world, received a Guinness World Record Medal, and was asked to speak in a lot of different countries around the world.
Traveling like that made me aware for the first time how important it was that I’d grown up in the USA, a place where people with disabilities are provided with access to an education and opportunities.
I began to use my position as a motivational speaker to encourage change and acceptance wherever I went. That in turn led to me being asked by Nobel Prize winning organization Handicap International (H.I.) to consider taking a trip to Ethiopia.
You see, Ethiopia only recently began allowing children with disabilities to attend school. H.I. wanted me to visit to promote the idea that “disability does not mean inability” and to be an example to everyone. I had some degree of fear that people there would not be willing to listen to what I had to say, but I decided to face the challenge and say, “I can.”
That was the beginning of an amazing, transformative journey for me. Fortunately, it’s something you’ll be able to witness for yourself since filmmaker Nick Spark accompanied me to Ethiopia as part of a documentary Right Footed. The film follows me for two years, and not only includes the trip to Africa, but something even more challenging — planning my wedding to my fiancé Patrick. (In case you are wondering, I met him in Taekwondo class!)
This film is something I’m extremely excited about finishing, because it will allow me to share my story with millions of people around the world to raise awareness and change attitudes about disability.
Because it really is all about the attitude!
Check out this trailer for the film, and help Jessica finish the documentary project.