Using her right foot, Jessica Cox takes her textbooks from her backpack one at a time and places them on top of her desk. Some students stare; some make a conscious effort not to. Ignoring her surroundings, Jessica opens her notebook, grasps a pen between her toes, and prepares to take notes.
For some, it's a unique experience - something they don't see every day. For the young freshman, who was born without arms, it's just another day at the University of Arizona at Tucson.
“I'm used to staring,” Jessica says, “but my reaction to it really depends on how I'm feeling.” Sometimes, she gets frustrated and doesn't want to go out. At other times, she realizes that if she were able-bodied and saw someone without arms, she too would probably be curious about how the person did things.
And Jessica does a lot. At 18, she's accomplished more than most able-bodied people her age. Yet her story is more than just the story of a young woman with flexible legs and toes; it's the story of someone who doesn't give up when things look tough. Not one to make excuses, she analyzes any obstacle she faces and comes up with ways to do whatever she wants to do.
“I believe I developed those qualities because of what I have gone through,” she says. “I feel sometimes that I need to prove to others that I can do things.”
Certainly, Jessica proved her mettle to others when she started taking tae kwon do lessons at age 10 and continued until she earned her black belt when she was in the seventh grade. Her brother and sister, who also studied the martial art, both quit after earning a couple of belts. She persisted, finding a way to use her feet and legs to accomplish the moves others did with their hands and arms.
“When I was little,” she explains, “my mom would put toys in my feet. It came naturally just as others learn to use their hands.” Although Jessica started wearing prostheses when she was 2, she stopped using them as much after the seventh grade. Today, she cooks, eats, washes dishes, curls her own hair, and writes and types with her feet. She also likes to swim and ice skate.
Recently, she even began driving even though her mother wanted her to be patient and take more time for learning, says her father, William Cox, a retired band teacher. “But she was so persistent that we finally gave in. When she gets on a ‘binge' of wanting to do something, she usually accomplishes it. The only thing that bothers me about her is trying to keep up with her.”
Though many tasks take Jessica more time than they do others, she excelled in junior high and high school and even found time to do volunteer work. While taking honors courses at Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, she worked on the yearbook staff, sang in the choir, belonged to the National Honor Society, and graduated with a 3.6 grade point average. In junior high, she received the Ron August Award for being an outstanding student, and in high school, she received the Crystal Apple Award, which is based on grades, community involvement and overcoming obstacles.
She also volunteered with the Metropolitan Education Commission Youth Advisory Council and at a nursing home where her mother, Inez, works as a nurse. “I went around and read to some residents, and I found that it was very enjoyable for me as well as for them. I felt that I should make time for it because it taught me a lot and it felt great knowing that I was doing something without having to be paid.”
Much of Jessica's success can be attributed to her parents, especially her mother, whom she calls her greatest inspiration. Inez Cox was one of 12 children in a Filipino family. “When one would graduate from college,” says William Cox, “he or she would help the next child go. They all strived to better themselves, and all 12 of them earned college degrees.”
Inez always encouraged Jessica to be active, Jessica explains, and trying new things brought about a lot of opportunities in her life. “I don't believe a disability should deter your life in any way,” Jessica explains. “It should not keep you from doing anything.”
William and Inez Cox also taught their daughter to keep at something until she finished it - a lesson she definitely took to heart. “I won't stop in the middle and give up,” Jessica says. William Cox agrees, explaining that he's impressed with Jessica's late-night studying and her determination to stay with any subject until she conquers it and gets a good grade.
That persistence is going to be even more important now that Jessica is a pre-med student majoring in physiological sciences. She hopes to be a psychiatrist or psychologist one day, but says that she might change her mind if she finds something she's more passionate about. “The classes are sort of overwhelming,” she says, “but I like the whole environment, the whole university thing.”
She did, however, test the waters before plunging into the college world. During high school, she attended the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine in Philadelphia for two weeks. Her mother wanted to go with her, but Jessica decided to go alone to see if she could do it. “Going alone made me realize that I could handle a college setting,” she says. “In earlier years and in high school, it was difficult to adjust and find ways of doing things, but now that I've learned to adapt and compromise with the environment, it really isn't too much of a problem.”
Her social life is going fine as well, and she advises others not to let a disability stand in their way of anything socially. “We're all human and I've learned to fit in,” she says. “It might be hard for some people at first, but after a time people will adjust and accept you for who you are.”
She admits that she sometimes wonders why she was born without arms. “Then,” she says, “I realize if I hadn't gone through what I've gone through, maybe I wouldn't be as strong as I am. If I have a weakness in one area, I have a strength in another. Even if someone seems perfect, I think there will always be a weakness. Mine's a physical weakness; someone else might have a psychological weakness. However, there is a level where we're all equal.”
Trying to think of something that a person without arms wouldn't be able to do, Jessica thinks for a moment and says, “Rock climbing.” Then she pauses a few seconds before completing the thought on a more positive note: “But if you're creative enough, I'm sure you can find a way.”
Jessica Cox is available for motivational speaking and can be reached by mail c/o Rick Bowers, Amputee Coalition, 900 E. Hill Ave., Suite 205, Knoxville, TN 37915 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org