I was born without arms. And with all that I have been able to do without them, I can honestly say that today, if given the choice, I would not want the arms.
I was born without arms and despite that challenge, managed to live a full life — I am able to dress myself, eat by myself, drive a car on my own, engage in sports and martial arts, run my own business, and enjoy a wonderful marriage to my husband, Patrick. I am able to do the necessary activities of daily life and even typing out this blog with just my feet.
I can do all things that a two-handed person can, and I guess in the eyes of many, that makes me extraordinary. However, it was not until 2008 that my life story came into the spotlight. In 2008, after 3 years of training, I learned how to fly. I learned how to fly an unmodified airplane with my feet and thus became the world’s first ever armless pilot.
For me, flying is the greatest form of freedom and independence, but most profound is how it has thrust me into a new role as an advocate. I have become an advocate for something that has become very near and dear to me — global disability rights.
Over the last 8 years, I have had the opportunity to use the success of becoming the first armless pilot as a tool to start a conversation about disability. I have found that people are very eager to listen to an armless woman who has flown an airplane with her feet and I use the opportunity to spotlight how people with disabilities accomplish great things, when given the opportunity and support.
Aviation has given me the ability to challenge stigmas and attitudinal barriers that exist all over the world. Flying gave me much more than my wings — it gave me a voice.
I have been able to travel to 20 different countries to share my story of accomplishing the seemingly impossible. In many of these countries, children with disabilities are kept hidden from society and denied the chance to go to school. In some places, a disability is considered a curse. In these very places, I am welcomed as a celebrity, and my story opens minds to possibilities they never before imagined for their own children.
One of the countries I visited was Ethiopia, a country where less than 3% of children with disabilities go to school. On the first day of my trip, I flew over the capital in an airplane. A representative of every media outlet in the country was there to do a story. An 8-year old boy named Tarikou was brought to the airport. Like me, he was also born without arms. Handicap International, a non-government organization dedicated to helping children with disabilities, facilitated Tarikou and his mother coming to the airport to meet me. Tarikou lived in a remote village and the trip to the capital was his first time riding in a car. It was also his first time to see an airplane. I met with him for a few minutes just before taking off on the runway. I showed him the airplane and he watched as I took off. After the experience, he told his mother that he wanted to become a pilot.
Despite the leaps and bounds that human achievement has accomplished, including soaring through the clouds, we still have a lot of work left to empower people with disabilities. Flying seemed impossible until we imagined it in our minds. Let us use aviation as a tool for taking off and break through the mental barriers people have about disability. Around the world, we must partner to improve their opportunities. The United Nations is working on a legislative solution under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Write to your representatives to encourage them to support this important cause — or donate to organizations like Handicap International. Together, I know we will make progress.
As I have discovered in my own life, the sky is the not the limit.
This piece first appeared in the GE Aviation blog.
Jessica recently visited GE Aviation’s headquarters and is passionate about using her story of flying to help children with disabilities around the world. To find out more about her or to order her book “Disarm Your Limits,” please go to www.jessicacox.com.
All views expressed are those of the author.