By Rob Finfrock
“There are several benefits to not having arms,” explained CJP featured presenter Jessica Cox. “Anyplace that requires a wristband, I get in for free. There are a few negatives, too. When I use my leg to flag down a taxi, I tend to attract the wrong kind of people.”
Cox’s witty and self-depreciating introduction (“That’s a little routine I’ve been working on; my next goal is doing stand-up comedy, and I wanted to see what you laughed at!”) framed an insightful presentation about her persistence in refusing to being born without arms deter her from such accomplishments as scuba diving, earning a black belt in taekwondo, and tying her shoes.
That spirit began when Cox’s observations in elementary school of how other children tied their shoes. “I realized that I was going to have to learn to do something different than everyone else,” she said. “I had to have my feet outside my shoes, so I could tie the laces on both of them with my toes.”
“At the age of six years-old, I learned how to think outside the shoe,” she reiterated, “and that has framed everything else I’ve ever done. It’s about addressing any challenge with a different strategy.”
That attitude culminated when Cox earned FAA approval in 2013 to fly an unmodified, vintage Ercoupe under Sport Pilot rules – a personal goal that first began as a child on the playground, “angry and frustrated about being limited to swings,” wishing she could fly over the playground.
“I remember sitting in the hangar at Spruce Creek in Florida, on that first day with my first instructor, and thinking about the first obstacle,” she recalled. “How would I be able to put on my headset with only one foot?”
Through sheer persistence, two broken headsets, and a lot of trial-and-error, Cox worked out a method to overcome that challenge – the first of many tasks that also included buckling the plane’s four-point safety harness, and demonstrating the ability to quickly extricate herself from the airplane during an emergency.
‘False Evidence, Appearing Real’
Cox emphasized that her experiences have shown her, above all else, to not allow fear – a word she terms an acronym for “false evidence, appearing real” – to act as a deterrent to personal goals and ambitions. “We create our own fear, and if we can create our own fear, we can also destroy it. I love what Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘Identify your greatest fear, and walk directly at it.'”
She then offered a lighthearted exercise towards adapting this attitude, asking for a “very brave” volunteer from the audience to demonstrate a seemingly mundane task: opening a can of soda, only without using arms and hands.
CJP Chairman David Miller (who admitted to being “scared sh**less” while walking towards the stage) attempted numerous, complicated – and often hilarious – strategies suggested by audience members.
After close to 15 minutes of futility, and even a ‘helping foot’ from CJP Director Marc Dulude, the soda can was finally opened, albeit without a lot of grace. Cox then concluded her presentation by effortlessly demonstrating how it’s done, opening a second can in less than 15 seconds.
“[Former Carnegie Mullen University computer sciences professor and “Last Lecture” presenter] Randy Pausch said, ‘Walls are only there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough,'” she said. “That is so true.”