Armless pilot Jessica Cox: ‘It is truly a gift to be different’

Jessica Cox, the world's first armless pilot, is in the Philippines to raise funds and help inspire other PWDs

LONG JOURNEY. Jessica Cox is in the Philippines to help PWD victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Photo by Adrian Portugal.

MANILA, Philippines – Jessica Cox has accomplished many impossible feats in her lifetime. From being the world’s only licensed pilot without arms, to obtaining a black belt in Taekwondo. 

“It was a long journey,” Cox said during a press conference. “It’s the truth of my challenges in life. It was especially difficult being the only one who was different. My brother had arms, my parents had arms, [and] to see myself as different was hard to understand,” Cox explained. She didn’t like the extra attention, and was always self conscious. “In college, I became more confident and began to realize it’s truly a gift to be different, and to stand out, and to use it to help other people.”

Cox has traveled to over 18 different countries to motivate persons with disabilities (PWDs) like her. 

‘Differently abled’

Aside from being a pilot, Cox is a martial artist, a diver, surfer, equestrian, gymnast and tap dancer. In 2013 she was recognized as one of the “10 Best Pilots” of Plane and Pilot Magazine and was awarded at the Inspiration Awards for Women in 2013.

Cox arrived in Manila on February 24. She was last here in February 2013 to visit her mother’s home town of Bobon, close to Guiuan, in Eastern Samar, which was devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in November 2013. “I don’t know if I’m ready to see the place,” she told Rappler. She said she had many good memories there, and is looking forward to reaching out to assist typhoon victims with PWDs. She also said an 80-year-old relative died in the storm surge.

Jessica Cox and her husband Patrick Chamberlain hosted a fundraising event at the Decagon in Frontera Verde, Pasig City, on February 25, with the Ortigas Foundation, for the benefit of PWD victims of the typhoon as well as to help fund her documentary Rightfooted.

“Mobility is especially an issue for persons with disabilities,” Cox told Rappler. 

Persons with disabilities are especially vulnerable in times of disaster, said Molly Feltner of Handicap International (HI), an international NGO founded in France in 1982 to help in refugee camps in Cambodia and Thailand. 

Disability and disaster

According to HI’s website they “work alongside people with disabilities and vulnerable populations, taking action and bearing witness in order to respond to their essential needs.”

HI was active in assistance emergency response teams in typhoon-hit areas in eastern Visayas. “We make sure we know where the people with disabilities are brought to safety,” Feltner told Rappler. “We are working with people who have disabilities before the storm and working with people who have injuries because of the storm.”  

She said sometimes people with PWDs or disabilities are “invisible” or “forgotten,” especially in times of disaster. “A deaf person might not be able to hear that a disaster is coming, a blind person may not see it and a person in a wheel chair might not be able to get out,” she said.  

According to the United Nations, “Common experience reveals that persons with disabilties are more likely to be left behind or abandoned during evacuation in disasters and conflicts due to lack of preparation and planning.” Lack of access to facilities and services also makes it extra difficult for persons with disabilities. 

In the Philippines, where extreme weather and disasters are frequent, it is especially important to remember where the people who have disabilities are, Feltner said. “It’s important to keep the mindset of seeing people who are in a wheelchair, deaf, or blind as a person – an important person. Everyone deserves to be included.” 

Lalaine Guanzon, vice president of the Federation of Persons with Disabilities of Makati, added: “If you are a PWD before, parang wala kang karapatan lumabas, just stay home,” Guanzon said. “But now a lot of people with disabilities are empowered.” (It was like we didn’t have the right to go out, just the right to stay at home)

Part of Guanzon’s advocacy is to include PWDs in disaster and risk reduction management training. “Makati rescuers are trained now how to rescue PWDs,” she said. Maraming LGUs na isinasama ang PWDs sa kanilang mga programa,” she added. (Many LGUs already include PWDs in their programs.)

Guanzon clarified that the law isn’t the problem. “We probably have the best PWD laws in Asia. We have accessibility laws, the Magna Carta for disabled persons, among other laws,” she said. “It’s just a matter of doing it.” –

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