Walking down the hallway to her fifth-grade classroom, Jessica Cox was suddenly blocked by one of her peers. “Look, Jessica,” the boy taunted, pulling his arms inside his shirt so the sleeves dangled empty. “I’m just like you. Handicapped!”
As laughter broke out, Jessica’s face flushed. Born without arms, Jessica knew she’d always be “different.” And as much as her inner voice tried to drown out the bullying by telling her that she could do anything she set her mind to, she still couldn’t keep the pain from her heart. She often wondered, Will I ever fit in?
Believing in Herself
When Jessica was born on February 2, 1983, in Sierra Vista, Arizona, a startling hush filled the room. “What’s wrong?” her mother pleaded, unable to see below the curtain.
The doctor squared her gaze, unable to hide his shock. “Your baby has no arms,” he blurted.
Sobs filled the air as her husband tried desperately to comfort her. “It will be okay,” he soothed. And once the initial shock wore off, love for the little girl they named Jessica filled their hearts. And they vowed to give their daughter as normal a life as possible.
With their support and encouragement, Jessica taught herself to do everything with her feet, from holding her toys to dressing herself. She was eventually fitted with prosthetics, but they were extremely heavy and clunky. After 11 years, Jessica stowed them away.
Determined to be just like all the other kids, Jessica signed up for after-school programs such as swim lessons, tae kwon do classes, dancing, and Girl Scouts. Still, some days anger and frustration consumed her, seeing everyone else with arms and hands doing things easily. And other kids’ jeers added to her sadness.
But as time went on, the more she heard people say, “Oh, you can’t do that. You don’t have arms,” the more determined Jessica became to prove them wrong. I’m not going to let other people tell me what I can and can’t do, she thought fiercely.
A Dream Takes Flight
Jessica’s upbeat outlook garnered her many friends. And as she graduated from high school and started college, she set her sights on becoming a motivational speaker. In the fall of 2005, at age 21, she was invited to speak in San Carlos, Mexico, addressing medical volunteers. The thought iced her veins as it involved a two-hour trip in a single-engine airplane. She’d always had a fear of flying, but as usual, she pushed her panic aside and made the trip. During the flight home, she even took the pilot up on his offer to sit in the cockpit.
“How’d you like to feel what it’s like to have your foot on the yoke?” he asked, putting the plane on autopilot. Jessica’s heart pounded. I don’t know if I can do this, she thought. But then, she heard her inner voice, reminding her that she could do anything she set her mind to, and Jessica slid off her shoe and wrapped her toes around what was like the plane’s steering wheel.
A rush of exhilaration surged through her as the plane soared through the sky. And, by the time they landed, a new dream had planted itself in Jessica’s spirit — she was going to become a certified pilot.
While flight instructors were supportive, there were logistical challenges such as what kind of airplane could be flown without all four limbs, and how to handle the Federal Aviation Administration. But three years later, in 2008, Jessica became a certified pilot — the first person certified to fly an airplane with only her feet.
Reporters from around the globe traveled to take a flight with Jessica, triggering an onslaught of emails from people inspired to conquer their own fears and go after their own dreams.
Compelled to reach even more people, in 2015, Jessica wrote a book called Disarm Your Limits: The Flight Formula to Lift You to Success and Propel You to the Next Horizon ($19.95, Amazon). She now dedicates herself to mentoring children and adults with disabilities, and has founded her own nonprofit called Rightfooted Foundation International.
“You don’t need arms to lift people up,” Jessica smiles. “My story isn’t a disability story, but one of achieving dreams no matter what the obstacle. Believe in yourself and watch yourself soar!”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.