A Tucson woman born with no arms is taking a message to impoverished and post-conflict countries, where people with physical impairments are often shunned and prevented from going to school.
Jessica Cox, 30, is to travel to Ethiopia next month as a guest of Handicap International, an aid organization that focuses on disabled children.
Cox has been a full-time motivational speaker since graduating from the University of Arizona in 2005 and is increasingly focusing her attention on disability issues in impoverished countries. She recently visited Ghana, where she met people forced to the lowest tier of society because of their physical differences. One of those people included a woman also born without arms, whose parents had been told to abandon her in the wilderness and let her die. The woman's mother raised her in hiding, Cox said.
"She had to go through so much social discrimination. She sought me out when I was there. It just blew me away," Cox said.
Eighty percent of the 200 million children worldwide who have a disability live in the developing world, says a 2011 joint report from Handicap International and Save the Children. At least 90 percent of children with disabilities in the developing world are denied the right to an education, says the report, "Out From the Shadows," which adds that those children are largely ignored by governments and the media, and remain almost invisible in mainstream society.
In some countries, the mortality rate for disabled children under age 5 is as high as 80 percent, the report says.
"We need to open up the minds of the decision-makers," Cox said.
During her 10-day trip to Ethiopia, Cox expects to work with children, families and teachers, and attempt to dispel a widely held belief that school would be no benefit to kids with disabilities. Handicap International, based in Lyon, France, recently developed an inclusive education project at six Ethiopian primary schools, which Cox will be working to advance. She also hopes to meet with government officials and to speak on local television and radio programs about her life and accomplishments.
"There are many different reasons why they don't go to school. It is quite a taboo subject," said Hannah Corps, an education adviser with Handicap International who was recently in Ethiopia. "They are really quite sidelined, hidden away and excluded from communities. Rather than going to school, children with disabilities will just stay home."
Corps said Cox can give such societies precisely what they need - the hope of possibility.
"Giving the children a voice is really important," she said. "The individual needs of children aren't really known. We've created resources at the schools to support the teachers and school staff to learn more about disabilities."
A Los Angeles-based film crew working on a documentary about Cox called "Rightfooted" will be gathering footage during Cox's trip to Ethiopia.
Cox already is no stranger to fame. She gained international notoriety when she earned a pilot's license and she received a medal from the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first person without arms to fly a plane. She later gave the medal to Pope Benedict XVI. She celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act with President Obama on the White House lawn, and has spoken at the Pentagon.
An independent woman, Cox uses her feet instead of her hands for everything from putting in contact lenses to driving. She never felt comfortable wearing prosthetic arms and shed them at a young age. As a result, she became remarkably adept at using her feet, which act in every way like hands.
And for anyone who thinks disabilities are a social hindrance, Cox is proof that such thinking is flawed. Upbeat and extroverted, she has a large circle of friends and was recently married to Patrick Chamberlain, her former tae kwon do instructor.
When Chamberlain, 28, first met Cox, he was taken aback that she seemed to never pull her arms out of her sweatshirt. He quickly learned why.
"She was the first physically differently abled person I had ever worked with," he said. "I first got to know her as a student, and she wouldn't allow me to try and configure a special class. She integrated perfectly with the regular one."
Chamberlain proposed by giving Cox a sparkly anklet instead of an engagement ring. He now travels with Cox on her speaking engagements.
"I went to Ghana, and it really troubles me that we are in the 21st century and people with disabilities are still persecuted as witches and leeches on society," he said. "I don't think there's a better thing to do than to help these people realize they aren't cursed, that they haven't been taken over by demons. They are human beings."
The story of Chamberlain's romance with Cox is documented in "Rightfooted."
"I contacted her and she happened to be coming to Los Angeles to plan her wedding," filmmaker Nick Spark said. "I met with her and something really struck me. Most people on the verge of getting married, if you speak to them they will talk at length about things like the church, invitations and bridesmaids.
"All she talked about was making sure that three little girls who were born without arms were going to be invited," Spark said. "She said if she'd had a role model at that age, it would have made a huge difference in her self-esteem. It just moved me. I couldn't hear that story and not document it."
Spark was able to film Cox's wedding and one of the little girls ended up catching the bouquet with her chin.
"Like everyone else in this world, I am sick and tired of the continual drumbeat of negativity," Spark said. "Here's someone doing really positive things. But she didn't get to this place without a lot of internal struggle."
Spark didn't know that Cox was from Tucson when he first contacted her. When he found out it, it further cemented his commitment to the project. Though he's now a California resident, Spark graduated from University High School and from the University of Arizona, where he was a Flinn Scholar. He produced and wrote the Emmy-award-winning documentary "The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club," which screened at The Loft Cinema in 2009.
Ideally, "Rightfooted" will be released in 2014, and Spark is particularly committed to ensuring it is screened internationally.
"It's been a treat to follow her. You see the impact she has wherever she goes," he said. "She really is this extraordinary person. When she says, 'If I can fly a plane, what can you do?' people take that to heart. They are just so inspired."
How to help
More information about Jessica Cox is available on her website: www.Rightfooted.com
Creators of a documentary about Jessica are raising funds until Monday through the International Documentary Association: www.indiegogo.com/projects/rightfooted-a-documentary-about-jessica-cox
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at email@example.com or 573-4134.