Woman of the Week: Jessica Cox (and Handicap International-US)

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Through fellow parents in Silver Spring and the DC area (you!), I learn of the most incredible individuals. My friend Mica Bevington works with Handicap International-US, an organization which works alongside people with disabilities to improve their living conditions and fundamental rights worldwide. One night at a cocktail party Mica told me of the amazing Jessica Cox.

Jessica was born without arms, but that has not stopped her from writing, dressing herself, driving a car, graduating college with a degree in Psychology, earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, scuba diving, surfing, and most notably, flying an airplane using only her feet. In fact, Jessica is in the Guinness World Records for being the first person to fly an airplane using only her feet.

Jessica serves as an international keynote speaker, and most recently she visited Handicap International’s inclusive education programs in Ethiopia in order to inspire children with disabilities and encourage the Ethiopian public and government to include people with disabilities in education. There are an estimated 2.4 to 4.8 million children with disabilities in Ethiopia but only 3 percent go to school.

I found Jessica’s story and international advocacy mission for Handicap International exciting, and I was honored to interview her.

***

A Parent in Silver Spring: How did the differently-abled people in Ethiopia respond to you during your trip?

Jessica Cox: As I don’t have arms, it was easy for them to see my difference and connect with my struggle. I believe this made the Ethiopian people I met more comfortable with me than the average American visitor, and made it easier for me to touch people. I found the people who I met inspiring. I was moved by their resilience and how much they want to go to school.

I met a hearing-challenged woman named Belayneh and her mother Senait Assefa. Belayneh told me that after her mother met me, she saw the potential, she could see the use of the basic foundation of schooling if her daughter was given the opportunity.

Why did you choose to work with Handicap International-US?

The work Handicap International is doing is critically important. Differently-abled people in other countries are not only faced with their stereotype of their abilities, they have less and less opportunities than others in the US, for example.

I understand that a documentary has been filmed about you, Rightfooted, and that your trip to Ethiopia for Handicap International will be featured in the film.  What are the goals of your film?

A movie is more practical and can reach more people than simply one person, so I believe it is critical that we do this. The film is now all done and is in the post-production stage. We are trying to raise the rest of the funds to make this a reality. I think mass media is necessary for the impact we want to make.

You have done, and do!, so many things that make me fearful and I have four limbs. Where do you get your courage?

My most important qualities are desire, persistence, fearlessness and creativity. I get it from my mother – she is a go-getter. She and other people challenged me. I heard somewhere — this is not something I came up with, but I really think it’s true — that the letters in “fear” stand for False Evidence Appearing Real. I try not to let fear stand in the way of what I want to achieve.

Everyday it is my goal to do something different or meet someone and teach them a little something. Sometimes I can tell when people see something different they are a little uncomfortable. I hope that when people see me they become more accepting of all people.

***

The trip to Ethiopia was Jessica’s first experience acting as an advocate for people with disabilities. Jessica received huge media attention on this trip and the TV and radio interviews she gave reached a potential audience of up to 45 million people. So much publicity was generated, by the time Jessica began visiting schools, crowds of thousands gathered to meet her. Numerous children and adults—including students, teachers, local leaders, journalists, and elders with and without disabilities—personally said that Jessica’s message had changed their attitudes about disability.

In July 2012, Handicap International launched an inclusive education pilot program at six primary schools in eastern Ethiopia in the cities of Dire Dawa, Harar, and Jijiga. The program impacts about 450 students with disabilities and 17,500 students without disabilities and their parents, teachers, and administrators.

Jessica says she has never before seen an organization that has Handicap International’s commitment and passion.

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To learn more than this humble interview, please visit Handicap International-US and Jessica Cox’s website.

My sincere thanks to Jessica, Mica Bevington and Molly Feltner of Handicap International-US. Photos courtesy of Handicap International-US.

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