Breaking Free from the Limitations of Disability

Breaking Free from the Limitations of Disability

The following is an excerpt from
Fearless Filipinas: 12 Women Who Dared to be Different. The book features stories of Filipina women who broke barriers across a wide variety of fields, including sports, entertainment, academe, business, and more. Authored by Monica Padillo, this chapter tells the story of what made Jessica Cox a Fearless Filipina.

Taking baby steps

In 1983, Jessica Cox was born in Arizona, USA, but she wasn’t like any ordinary baby―she had no arms. Her parents taught her from the very start that she could live and move just as well as people with arms did. Yet despite the positivity they portrayed in front of her, it was in their private moments when Jessica’s parents felt the anxiety of raising their child with an uncertain future brought about by her disability.

Naturally, as a baby, she wasn’t aware of how different she was compared to others. But it was when she was a year old that she realized she was a person with a disability because of the way people treated and looked at her. One of her earliest memories was going to the grocery store with her mother and sitting in the shopping cart. As they moved along, she heard dismayed whispers from other shoppers.

“Oh poor thing.”
“What a poor baby.”
“How does she do anything?”

Jessica of course didn’t pick up the negative connotation of their words at the time, but she realized something was wrong when she noticed her mother being affected by their comments.

At the age of three, Jessica’s parents took her to a hospital to be fitted with prosthetic arms, believing the artificial aid would help her function better in the world. They, along with most people without disabilities, assumed that prosthetics were beneficial for people with disabilities. But Jessica felt otherwise.

She didn’t understand why she had to use prosthetic arms when she had already been accustomed to using her feet as her hands. Yet Jessica kept them to see if they really could help her do more. For 11 years, she was taught to write, eat food, and do other things with her prosthetic arms every day. She was also enrolled in a public school instead of a private or special needs school as her parents wanted her to live a normal life. At the time, the US government ratified the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensured that people with disabilities had the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The law also required regular schools to accommodate children with disabilities.

During these formative years, Jessica did what other children did. She played and ran with them during recess, but she was still prevented from doing things that required arms such as climbing monkey bars or going down slides. During their playtime, Jessica would instead sit by the swings and imagine that she was flying.

At the age of 10, she finally found one of her first true passions in life: Taekwondo, a martial art from Korea known for elaborate kicking techniques. It was also one of the few moments when she had the chance to take off her prosthetic arms. Whenever they went home from school, Jessica’s brother, Jason, carried her prosthetic arms for her as she wasn’t required to wear them all the time anyway. Those moments temporarily lifted some burden off her shoulders―quite literally.

From the very beginning, Jessica’s Sah Bum Nim (Taekwondo instructor) modified all Taekwondo techniques for her, substituting hand moves with kicks and strikes with her feet. The sport worked to her advantage because it involved less punching and more kicking, such as the axe kick or roundhouse kick that Jessica soon mastered.

Aside from Taekwondo, she had other days when she had to take the prosthetic arms off due to mechanical problems, and it was in those moments where she felt more relieved than aggravated. To her, taking off the prosthetics felt like breathing fresh air after being trapped in enclosed quarters for so long.

The arms became a barrier between her and the life she wanted. She envisioned an easy and free-flowing life where she could use her feet without hearing the prejudice of others. When she was still in elementary school, it hurt when people started bullying her and calling her “robot girl” and “Captain Hook,” making her feel lonelier and more isolated from the world. She further felt the visibility of her disability with her prosthetic arms.

When 14-year-old Jessica moved from Sierra Vista to the bigger city of Tucson in Arizona with her family in 1997, she realized she wanted to break free from her prosthetic arms. Who am I wearing these for? she thought. Why am I conforming?

On the first day of 8th grade at her new school, Jessica left home without her prosthetic arms. As she walked to the bus stop, she kept marveling at the fact that she felt lighter, freer, and more empowered than she ever felt in her 14 years of existence.

When she finally hopped onto the school bus, she recalled a famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that her mother used to tell her: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

To Jessica, it was time to unlink herself from the prejudices that other people put her under because of her outward appearance. I am not my disability, she reminded herself. Since that fateful first day of school, her prosthetic arms remained in the closet, collecting dust and cobwebs.

Breaking free from limitations

When Jessica was in college, she continued learning Taekwondo and eventually earned a black belt, becoming the first armless black belt in the American Taekwondo Association. Considering the limitations caused by her disability, one would find it commendable how Jessica was able to earn her black belt around the same time it took others to. Jessica later gained another black belt in the International Taekwondo Federation.

Apart from the confidence boost that the martial art gave her, it was in Taekwondo where Jessica met Patrick Chamberlain, one of her instructors. After getting to know each other through their common interests, the two decided to date and become a couple.

Throughout the years, Jessica learned how to surf, drive a car, and type on a keyboard at 25 words per minute, among other things―all done with only her feet.

Shortly after graduating from the University of Arizona in 2005, she started her motivational speaking career after learning that there were people who were inspired by her life story to go beyond their limitations as well. It was enough for Jessica to venture out and share her experiences with various audiences.

In the same year, she and her father were approached by a fighter pilot and asked if she wanted to learn how to fly a plane. Remembering the anxiety she felt when she rode a plane for the first time―in a Cessna 172 airplane after an event where she spoke at―she found the proposal odd. Sure, she could drive a car and swim well, but flying an airplane? It was a whole different story. She didn’t find the need to conquer the skies after already braving land and sea.

But before she gave her resolution, her father, with his “I can” attitude, answered for her: “She would love to.” She initially found it ridiculous―thanks a lot, dad, she thought―but she eventually realized that the opportunity was another way for her to break boundaries. Suddenly, she remembered the little girl without arms who sat by the swings during recess and imagined that she was flying. Little did that girl know that simply sitting by the swings foreshadowed a dream that would come to fruition once she became an adult.

Determined to finally overcome her fear of flying and advance her career as a motivational speaker―given that her focus was on breaking free of her physical limitations―22-year-old Jessica applied for pilot training and learned how to operate a plane. During her training, she flew three different airplanes and learned from three different flying instructors. She also practiced flying in three different states and spent countless hours studying the technicalities of being a pilot.

Jessica first used an Ercoupe plane for her training as it was the only plane that she could fly with only two limbs. When she moved her training to Florida to learn from a dedicated instructor, she had to use a different Ercoupe plane as the first one didn’t meet the legal requirements for the license Jessica wanted.

She and her instructor also moved her training to California eventually. However, she had to change planes again as the throttle of her second Ercoupe, the design of which was harder for Jessica to use, wasn’t safe for her without a little help.

Frustrated at her seeming lack of progress, Jessica took a break from flying for a year. It wasn’t until she spoke with a four-year-old girl who also had no arms that she was able to regain her confidence in flying. When she told the girl about her story―about how she didn’t see her disability as a hindrance by doing courageous things that even most non-disabled people could not do―Jessica saw the little girl’s eyes light up with excitement. At that moment, Jessica was able to instill hope in someone who had the same disability as her. It also dawned on her the reason why she was training to be a pilot at all.

My disability didn’t stop me from taking Taekwondo or driving a car,
she reminded herself, so why should it stop me now?

Jessica knew she had the opportunity to be the catalyst of change for people like the little girl. If she could face her fears and break free from her limitations, so could others.

She eventually found a new instructor and a new Ercoupe plane in Tucson. After a few more months of training, Jessica was told that she was ready to go on her first solo flight.

After going through the preliminary steps―checking the weather, inspecting the airplane and engine, fueling up, scanning the sky for other incoming aircraft, taxiing the plane to prepare for take off―she wrapped the toes of her right foot around the yoke, held the throttle with her left foot, powered up the engine, raced down the runway, and finally lifted off.

When she was finally 1,000 feet above ground, she thought to herself, look ma, no hands!―a common phrase American kids say when riding a two-wheel bike. When she successfully finished her first solo flight, Jessica realized that she had become not only a pilot-in-command of an Ercoupe airplane, but a pilot-in-command of her life.

Her overall pilot training, which only usually took six months for other people, lasted for three years.

This newfound skill enabled her to achieve remarkable feats such as taking off and landing in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which was where the Wright brothers flew the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft in history.9 She was also able to ferry former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin in her 1946 Ercoupe airplane with aviation call sign Two Six Romeo―a gift from a generous fan―during the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he had sponsored and passed.

Jessica also flew her parents and Patrick―who she had married in 2012.

Finding opportunities in disadvantages

At the backstage of a dimly lit auditorium in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jessica did a couple of breathing exercises before she presented herself on stage. She has been speaking in front of thousands of people for 4 years, yet the thought of doing a TEDx talk made her nervous.

The program was renowned worldwide for its outstanding range of speakers such as social psychologist Amy Cuddy, international education advisor Ken Robinson, and even business magnate turned philanthropist Bill Gates. She wondered if she could deliver just as much inspiration and knowledge when it was time for her to face the audience composed of entrepreneurs, investors, business executives, academics, and more.

Breathe in, breathe out. She reminded herself, I’m a pilot, a black belt holder, a scuba diver. I’ve done everything with just my feet. What should I be afraid of?

When the program finally started and the host introduced her, she made her way to the middle of the stage.

On the outside, Jessica looked composed and confident, but on the inside, she felt anxious.

When the spotlight hit her, everyone saw her wearing a smart casual attire, with the sleeves of her beige blazer cut off and the holes sewn shut. Anyone in the hall could immediately see why the sleeves were placed that way. They applauded as she walked to the middle of the stage. They also noticed that she wasn’t wearing any shoes. After a short pause, Jessica started her TEDx talk with an interesting question.

“I would like you all to look at me and think to yourselves: what’s different?” she said, “Well, you’re right. Unlike anyone else in the room, I’m not wearing any shoes.”

To her left were a chair and a pair of shoes―props meant to support her case.

“I want to talk to you about how we see challenges. In elementary school, I was challenged with tying my shoelaces. I watched as my teacher demonstrated with her hands but once my feet were inside the shoes, I knew that the regular method wouldn’t work for me,” she said.

She sat down and demonstrated an unconventional way of tying her laces: using only her toes.

“I want you to look at me again and understand that I’m not different. Just like everyone else here, I have what some may consider a disadvantage. In case you haven’t noticed, I was born without arms,” she said.

The audience laughed. “Yet while my disadvantage can be easily spotted, everyone has a disadvantage.”

She further said that having grown up in a world that caters more to people without disabilities has taught her that self-pity prevents progress. “Had I pitied myself, I wouldn’t have tied my shoelaces, learned how to swim, won taekwondo tournaments, driven a car, or flown a plane.”

“Disadvantages should never be met with pity. A disadvantage is unquestionably a challenge but within the challenge lies the opportunity for empowerment and growth,” Jessica told the audience.

To conclude her TEDx talk, she gave the audience one piece of advice: “Tough things happen to all of us in life. It is inevitable. If we allow them, they will divert us off course. But how we react and the choices that we make can keep us on course. It is in our hands―or our toes.”

To get more insights from other Fearless Filipinas like Jessica Cox, please check out the full book, available for purchase here

Fearless Filipinas - and women’s books - will soon be streaming on Audiophile, our platform for exclusive Filipino audiobooks.

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