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Jessica Cox said one of the most important decisions she made in her life occurred when she was just 14 years old.
“When I made that decision to leave my [prosthetic] arms behind, it changed my life,” Cox, a disability rights activist and licensed pilot, told NBC News. Born without arms due to a birth defect, Cox had used prosthetics throughout her childhood.
“It made me realize that I was trying to hide my difference and to just make my life average,” Cox said, adding that her prosthetics were heavy and inconvenient.
“It was very uncomfortable and it was hot, especially growing up in Arizona,” she said. “But even greater than that were the emotional reasons for taking them off.”
“When I made that decision to leave my [prosthetic] arms behind, it changed my life."
Since that day, the now 34-year-old Cox said she has not looked back. She trained herself to use her feet to do everyday tasks like drive a car, prepare meals, and brush her hair. As an active teen, Cox participated in several sports and afterschool activities — including the martial art of taekwondo — and beauty pageants. As a young adult she earned her pilot’s license, becoming a Guinness World Record holder for the "first woman to fly an airplane with her feet” in the process.
Cox’s story is now being told in the documentary “Right Footed,” which is scheduled to make its television debut on May 20 as a part of the Fuse network’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month programming.
Beginning in 2011, the filmmakers followed Cox over the course of two years as she traveled to Ethiopia and her mother’s native Philippines to talk about disability rights, planned her wedding, and lobbied the U.S. government to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
She said now that she’s glad the documentary will allow other disabled children and parents to see an adult with disabilities succeed both professionally and personally.
“After every speech I make, a parent will raise their hand and ask, ‘what can we do to inspire them to become successful adults?’” Cox said.
She said she credits most of her success to the hard work her mother did throughout her childhood. “My mom exposed me to every activity and with any achievement, when I set my goal and was able to achieve that, there was this whole new level of confidence,” she said. “I started to stretch myself out.”
Since getting her black belt in taekwondo and learning to pilot an airplane, Cox has turned her attention to the sport of slacklining, a form of tightrope walking in which a line is usually strung between two trees.
“For me, I’m adapting because my center of balance is lower than the average person,” she noted. “So I have to do different things with my shoulders and moving my hips.”
Cox added that she has also begun rock climbing recently using a specially-made harness designed by a friend.
But she is also eager to talk about the more ordinary parts of her life. When Cox and “Right Footed” director Nick T. Spark first began talking about a documentary, they knew they wanted part of the film to be focused on her wedding to Patrick Chamberlain, who she met through taekwondo.
“Nick said that when I was talking about my wedding, I wasn’t talking about normal things most brides talk about,” Cox said. “I was talking about how I was going to invite these girls who were also born like me.”
The three young girls are featured prominently in the film and at one point, one mentioned that she never dreamed that she could one day get married until she saw Cox do so. Cox stressed the need to talk about emotional connections and dating when discussing the needs of the disabled.
“It’s a question in every girl’s life, but when you are visually different, it’s even more so than the average girl,” she said.
For Cox, her journey to self-acceptance is rooted in her Catholic upbringing.
“I once went to my church pastor to pray to God that I would have arms, and that was when I was five, because I was not understanding what that meant,” she said. “It was really a journey in faith and understanding that these things don’t just happen… This difference was really a gift.”