It’s quite impossible not to be inspired by the story of Jessica Cox.
The petite American who stands at 155cm (5’1”) holds a sport pilot licence, has a double black belt in taekwando, swims, surfs, dives and skis.
But before you say, ‘So what?”, the amazing part is that she does all that without a pair of arms.
Cox holds two Guinness World Records for being the first armless person in aviation history to become a certified pilot, and the first person without arms in the American Taekwondo Association to get a black belt.
The disability rights advocate has also been featured on TV programmes and channels like Ellen, Inside Edition, Fox and Friends, Oprah Winfrey Network, CNN, CBS Evening News and the BBC.
The middle of three siblings, Cox was born 35 years ago in Tuscon, Arizona, without upper limbs due to a rare birth defect.
Growing up, she has had her fair share of name-calling, hurtful remarks and endless stares.
In elementary school, she hated the fact that she could only play on the swings while other kids swung away on the monkey bars.
Alone with her thoughts, she would imagine herself as Superwoman and fly above the playground, taking people up one at a time with her special ability.
It was frustrating for her as a child to understand why she was different from her friends. Despite taking part in various activities, including gymnastics and tap dancing, Cox often got angry; she would throw things, kick and have screaming tantrums at times.
That led her parents – her father is American while her late mother was Filipino – to send her for martial arts lessons with her siblings.
From the ages of three to 14, Cox used prosthetic arms but hated them, secretly wishing they would break so she wouldn’t have to wear them.
Then, on her first day in eighth grade, she decided to take them off – and has never looked back since.
Eventually she learnt to drive an unmodified car (she holds an unrestricted driver’s licence), types over 25 words per minute, puts on make-up and even contact lenses with her feet, effortlessly.
Cox was first introduced to flying when she was approached by a fighter pilot named Robin Stoddard one day after giving a Rotary Club talk in the United States in 2005.
Stoddard, founder of Wright Flight, a Tucson-based non-profit group that uses aviation as a motivational tool, asked her if she would like to fly an airplane.
Her father, who was with her, immediately said, “She would love that” when, in fact, flying in commercial planes had been her greatest fear since she was a child.
Nonetheless, Cox decided to take up the challenge and, three years later, earned a US Federal Aviation Administration sport pilot licence after much hard work.
Flying an Ercoupe (a type of light aircraft originally built without rudder pedals), she controls the throttle with her left foot and the yoke with her right.
Today, the spunky University of Arizona psychology graduate is indeed flying high.
She is a motivational speaker, and has spoken in over 23 countries; author of autobiography Disarm Your Limits; Goodwill Ambassador of Humanity and
Inclusion (formerly known as Handicap International); and a mentor with the International Child Amputee Network.
Cox is also the subject of the multiple award-winning documentary Right Footed that aired on National Geographic in more than 80 countries.
“It was great to be able to show the documentary to so many people and to get their reaction of how wonderful they thought it was. The film was a great way to reach out to more people, especially families with children born without arms,” said Cox, via a recent phone interview.
The documentary, about her life and achievements, had its world premiere at the Mirabile Dictu Film Festival (International Catholic Film Festival) held in Vatican City, Rome, in 2015, where it won Best Documentary Award. The film was also the Social Impact Film winner at the 2015 Hollywood Film Festival and selected to play at various film festivals.
Cox’s advocacy and speaking engagements have taken her all over the United States as well as to countries like Ghana, Kenya and the Philippines.
Seeing the lack of opportunities for people with disabilities in some of these countries motivated her to do more.
“I feel down when I see the unfortunate reality of many people with disabilities around the world, and how they are not given the same opportunity. That makes my work and role more important because I need to get the message out there that people with disabilities should not be stigmatised. They should be given opportunities and they should be protected, and be able to do anything that they want,” she said strongly.
“Developing nations are where it’s important to focus my advocacy work, but (lack of opportunities) is everywhere in the world. Even in the US, there is a constant challenge for people with disabilities to find jobs and employment,” she added.
Currently, Cox is working on developing her own non-profit organisation for children and people with disabilities called Rightfooted Foundation International.
Under the foundation is a YouTube series called Toe Talks, where together with her friend Tisha, they release two episodes a month talking about issues they feel are important to amputees.
Being a motivational speaker is certainly her calling and, having spoken in many countries, Cox feels privileged to be able to share her story with people around the world.
“It’s wonderful to be a woman and to be a leader and to let people know that women can do great things. It’s also wonderful to see strong women leaders all around the world, and I hope they can continue their leadership because we all look up to them. They are the role models to so many people,” she said.
Cox welcomes speaking opportunities. For more info, go to jessicacox.com.