The Right Foot

Jul 15 2013

Demo at the 2010 American Taekwondo Association World Championship Opening Ceremony. 

The armless 1st Degree Black Belt and Nunchuck forms.

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Jun 26 2013

The CRPD in Washington

On June 4th and 5th, I attempted to do something I had never done before.  My husband Patrick and I went to Washington DC to lobby on behalf of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, if you want to read the details visit  The idea sprang from the people at Handicap International (the same group that invited me to Ethiopia) and when they suggested the idea of supporting the CRPD I was hesitant.

I have always stayed away from politics and said I never want to be a politically involved person.  Given that people have seen my public image and seen me as a leader in making achievements I did not want to take that to a political level.  But I realized that in this great democracy ‘why not’?  So I decided to use this privilege I have being from a democracy to share the voice of children with disabilities in Ethiopia and around the world who would benefit from this treaty. 

Patrick and I were prepped on the details of the CRPD by HI which is basically a treaty to help people with disabilities.  It will affect people abroad more than in the US because we already have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in place.  It is basically a list of recommendations that each country should try to achieve.  By itself, it changes no law.

The problem in the US, despite being the ones who pushed it through the UN in the first place, is that last December the Senate failed to pass the CRPD by 5 votes.  There were many objections including: procedure because it was a lame duck session of congress, fears it would affect home schooling (not true as I have learned), and general distrust of anything associated with the United Nations.

We went out there and took a whole day with HI to make sure we understood the details of the CRPD.  I also received help from Esme at USICD (United States International Council on Disabilities). We looked at the list of Senators who voted “no” last December and found 7 who we think might change their vote.

Later that afternoon we all went to the House of Representatives section of the Capitol and met to Tammy Duckworth who is a veteran who lost her legs when an RPG hit the helicopter she was piloting and crashed in Iraq.  She recovered and is now a Representative.

Meeting Representative Duckworth that afternoon was pretty incredible.  I had heard about her story in a magazine and how she recovered from loosing her legs and is still a pilot.  So she is still flying even today.  To hear that was pretty cool but too meet her in person was even better.  She mentioned that last year at Airventure in Oshkosh she had seen me from afar but saw I was surrounded by a few people and decided not to introduce herself.  Finally getting to meet her was an experience.

Then next day was an intense day of meeting with Senators, voicing my stance on the CRPD, sharing stories about the kids I met in Ethiopia, and about my life growing up in the US without arms.  All in hopes of conveying the importance of the CRPD and how it relates to anyone with a disability.

I really wanted to share what HI, USAID, ASAID (Australia’s aid program) and the Ethiopian government were doing with the inclusive education program I visited in April.  Ethiopia is one of the +130 who have signed the CRPD.

Senator Flake was the first Senator we met.  Patrick joined me in each meeting along with Esme from USICD and Beth who is the Executive Director of Handicap International US.  In our strategy session the day before the four of us studied what we expected each Senator to object to in the CRPD.  We expected Senator Flake to voice strong objections about the sovereignty of the US.  When we met him he led with his charisma and relative youth for a Senator which was not what I was expecting.  When we brought up the subject of the CRPD he said he knew nothing about it which was a surprise and he said he was focusing on domestic affairs instead of an international treaty.  It was a little disillusioning to know he knew nothing about it.

We caught Senator Kirk on the way out of his office to another meeting.  We thought going in that we were only going to meet with his Legislative Aid.  He was surrounded by his entourage and they were pushing him in a wheelchair out of his office when we arrived.  Late last year he suffered a stroke.  They were pushing him to the elevator but as they were waiting for it Patrick and I ambushed him.  I ran up to him and said, “Senator Kirk, I just want to introduce myself.  My name’s Jessica.  I’m an armless pilot and would like to know what your position on the CRPD is.”  He said, “What is the CRPD?” We explained it was the disability treaty.  Understandable given the number of acronyms flying around DC.  He said, “I will be supporting it for obvious reasons,” and tapped his fist on his wheelchair.

We considered that a success since Senator Kirk was unable to vote on the CRPD last December because he was recovering from his stroke.

In the end we met Senators Flake (AZ), Kirk (IL), Isakson (GA), Cochran (MS) and Blunt (MO) and top aids for Cochran, Blunt, Kirk, Portman (OH), and Chambliss (GA).  All Senators who HI and USICD thought might change their vote either because they flip flopped on the CRPD vote last December or they were not in office yet and had not been pushed on the issue before.

What we expected to be the last meeting was with two staff members from Senator Harkin’s office.  Senator Harkin has been one of champions of disability rights in the Senate.  They were really interested to hear the responses of the other Senators and I felt privileged to meet with people who really knew how important the CRPD was.

HI also set up a sit down chat with members of the Africa Bureau of USAID.  It was really great to tell them about Ethiopia and the lives that USAID is helping change.

At the last minute Patrick received a phone call from Senator McCain’s office saying they had room in their schedule for a quick meeting.  He is a public figure who I’ve seen a lot on TV given I’m from his state.  Seeing him in real life was an experience.  His staff led me though his office and it was like meeting a celebrity you only see on TV.  He seemed very friendly and very happy and he said he knew we were meeting about the CRPD which he was already in full support of. 

It was comforting to know there were so many in support of the CRPD.  I hope this time there will be enough votes to finally ratify the treaty.

Going into all of this I was very naive about politics and I did not want to touch it.  But after two days of meeting with Senators and lobbying about the benefits of the CRPD I was so charged up that I was ready to take off and keep voicing how important this treaty was.  Being charged up like that was something I did not expect from this whole experience.  I was even ready to meet with the Senators who had no chance of changing their votes to a “yes” on the treaty and tackle their misunderstandings.

I want to make sure I thank everyone from Handicap International who helped get Patrick and me up to speed and ready for this whole trip, especially Beth, Mica, Molly and Jen.  And thank you to Esme from USAID who I think knows the CRPD by heart.

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Feb 13 2013
Feb 11 2013
Jun 01 2012

This is the fundraising trailer for Rightfooted.  We still have a long way to go before it is finished!  Whether or not you are able to help financially, please share the video with 10 friends.


May 31 2012

Rightfooted trailer


Those of you who know me, know that my life today is full of opportunity.  In the past few years I’ve traveled around the United States and the world — Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and the Middle East — sharing my story.  I like to think I’ve inspired many people from all kinds of backgrounds and ages, both normal and differently-abled.  That has always been my dream.  But there is only one of me, and so many people to reach.  That is why I have always hoped that I might be able to create a documentary film to share my story with the world. 

In November of last year, an Emmy award winning documentary filmmaker named Nick Spark asked if we could meet — not to make a film, he just wanted to meet me!  But as we spoke informally about my coming wedding (then a mere five months away), we both realized what an important moment it represented for me.  The perceived barrier of being different held me back from seeing the person I was.  But now I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am, and have found happiness. 

Nick loved the story of my wedding and said he felt it could be the launching point for an even bigger project.  So even though we had no money and very little time to plan, we decided to work together and begin to fulfill another dream of mine.  So in the whirlwind months leading up to my wedding, Nick got our project blessed by the non-profit International Documentary Association (IDA), and planned a production.  Then some wonderful friends kicked in some seed money — just enough, as it turned out, to allow Nick and his team to film me from my bridal shower to my wedding day. 

Today, Nick and I are proud to release the fundraising trailer for Rightfooted.  Keep in mind when you do, that this is just the beginning of a much bigger project — a film that tells my life story and shows the many places I’m visiting and people I’m trying to touch. 

Projects like this cost a great deal of money, and we won’t be able to make this film without your support.  So please consider making a tax deductible contribution to the film through the IDA. Whether you can do that or not, please help us get the word out about this important project by sending the trailer to ten friends.   Every person you share my story with gets me closer to fulfilling my goal.

Watch the trailer by clicking on YouTube below.

Apr 30 2012

Filming on Friday the Thirteenth

The three day filming schedule for Rightfooted was planned weeks in advance.  Without realizing it, the day we dedicated to filming at the airport fell on Friday the 13th. 

I did not think much of it given I have invited many film crews to the San Manuel airport where I trained to fly.  Cameramen from Japan, Russia, Korea, Brazil, England, France have sat in the passenger seat and gone up with me on what was their first flight in a single engine airplane.  Initially the cameramen are usually quite terrified but only after a few minutes in flight they realize my proficiency as a pilot and relax. 

In my mind filming on Friday the 13th was just going to be another one of those filmed flights.  The morning started with the sound of my alarm clock going off at 3am.  I knew the only thing that was going to wake me up was a shower.  I had to dart out the door after a fast breakfast because I had to swing by the office to pick up my logbook and certification.  I asked my brother if he wanted to come and he agreed so Patrick picked both of us up. 

We pulled into the airport right on time at 5am.  I was surprised to find Parrish, my flight instructor, already in the office.  The film crew arrived and they started rigging up the cameras in the airplane.  After Parrish received a quick tutorial by our camera guy, Bill, we went up on a flight.  It was decided that Parrish be the person to go up with me to film the flight just in case. It had been four months since I had last flown solo.  I was a little rusty!  One thing about flying is that it takes constant practice and flying without practice is quite dangerous. 

We went up just in time to catch a beautiful sunrise.  After a smooth touch and go, we came down and set up the hanger for the interviews. Terry Brandt, the examiner who gave me my check ride, drove down from Phoenix to do an interview. It was great to talk with him since it had been three years since I had seen him last. 

When he was finished, I did my interview leaning against the wing of the Ercoupe.  The noise of the other planes at the airport taking off made it difficult to film.  It was a beautiful day for flying so there were quite a few planes out.  Each time an airplane taxied, flew past or took off we had to stop filming and then restart up when it was gone.  This made for a long filming process. 

We were about to wrap up with my interview when a Piper Cherokee lined up at the end of the runway for takeoff.  We stopped for the Piper’s engine run up.  What we think happened next was that during the takeoff, one of the wings lost lift.  Regardless of what the investigators find was the problem, the Piper was out of control and heading right at the hanger in which we were filming.  Bill, the cameraman yelled “Run!”, I darted out of the hanger one way, the production assistant and Nick, the director, ran the other direction while the cameraman and sound guy ran inside the hanger. 

The Piper bounded over the taxi way and hit the other parked Ercoupe with it’s wing.  Sadly it was the same Ercoupe I had flown earlier in the morning.  The impact with the Ercoupe redirected the Piper away from the hanger.  The Piper’s left wing almost completely tore off under the stress but held on long enough to spin the Piper around and finally stop. 

Parrish came from the other side of the hangers and ran to the plane, climbed on the wing that was not broken and pulled out the passenger and pilot.  The plane was leaking fuel so Nick grabbed an extinguisher and sprayed it down.  Everyone walked away that day and we were very lucky.  Fortunately the only blood lost in the whole ordeal was by Nick when he was removing the metal safety wire on the extinguisher.

As always, I ask that if you would like to help us continue filming to bring this story to life, please consider a tax deductible donation.  Even $5 will help us get closer to our goal.


Apr 24 2012
I have never been more impressed and inspired by anyone in life as I have been from you. I rate the opportunity to meet and hear you speak as one of the top 10 moments of my life so far.
— Written by Venki Prathivadi about a motivational talk presented by Jessica Cox in Sydney, Australia in April 2012.  Mr. Prathivadi is the head of Mahindra Satyam in Australia and New Zealand.



Back to my Stomping Grounds, Filming Day 2

The second day of filming for Rightfooted took place about an hour and a half south of Tucson in my home town of Sierra Vista.  I was born there and only moved to Tucson when I was 14.  I took my first Taekwondo class there as well as my first dance class.  Both my brother, sister and I went through the public school system there so it was a great chance to catch up with some familiar faces and add a little history to the documentary.

I wanted to have a couple shots of walking around my old schools and talking with old friends.  Nick, the director, agreed.  In exchange for allowing us to film on the campus I offered to do a motivational talk with the students.

Connecting with a Seventh Grader

At the end of my presentation, a seventh grade student came up to me and said
that my being there that day and speaking to the students made her feel she was not alone.  She was hearing impaired.

I realized I inspired many but this student reminded me the real reason why I do what I do and likewise why I am doing the documentary.  Yes it is inspiring to see what I can do and hear about all that I have been able to accomplish. 

The significance of my presentation is more than just motivating.  I try to remind people that they are not alone just as this seventh grader expressed.  It is one thing to get people motivated but it is another thing to connect with someone and give them hope.  It is hard to be “different,”  especially in seventh grade. 

In seventh grade, I remember being ostracized but here I was being celebrated for my difference.  I told her that what set her apart now would be her advantage in the future.  All in all that was the most rewarding thing about filming on day 2!

Meeting a Nurse

Back when CNN published a story about me, a nurse in El Paso, Texas sent me an email.  The nurse had been in the delivery room the day I was born.  I was her first delivery. 

She told me the story of how my delivery had been so surprising and evidently traumatic, that she was ready to quit her job.  Her coworkers and supervisor encouraged her to continue. 

Today she is still a nurse.  She shares her experience with new trainee nurses telling them they can never know what to expect.

Nick and I met her at Sierra Vista Community Hospital.  The staff at the hospital was kind enough to let us actually film in a birthing room. 

I will always have fond memories for Sierra Vista.  Filming gave me a chance to reflect on a great many things and ask questions I never had a chance to ask before. 

As always, I ask that if you would like to help us continue filming to bring this story to life, please consider a tax deductible donation.  Even $5 will help us get closer to our goal.


Apr 16 2012

Filming with my Mentor

As you may have read a little while back, I met another woman who did not have arms that helped me figure out and see how to overcome different challenges living an independent life.

I was reunited with her this past Wednesday to film a couple scenes for Rightfooted, the documentary.  It has been a decade since that day of coffee in the diner.  Since then both of our lives have changed.  Now I fly planes and she is a body builder.  I had the opportunity to watch her in her new element.  She was practicing for her first national competition.

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