Most folks can’t even bend over to touch their toes (blame it on, er, festive feasting), but Jessica Cox, who was born without arms due to a birth defect, adapts by using her feet as hands.
The Filipino-American motivational speaker, 34, got a degree in psychology from the University of Arizona before venturing into the business of inspiring people, and will be here next month to give a talk about how she overcame the odds to live a regular life.
Just how regular? With her feet, she plays the piano, cooks, drives an unmodified car and, wait for this, also flies a plane. No biggie.
She would have gone on a rollercoaster too, had she not been thwarted by a theme park policy (she sued the Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida last year for discrimination after she was prevented from going on motion rides as they require riders to have at least one hand on the safety bar). She also stars in a 2016 autobiographical documentary called Right Footed.
8 DAYS: When did you first realise that you were not like other people?
JESSICA COX: It was probably when I was around one year old, when I realised people were treating me differently. Back then it was hard for me to come to terms with it, since my brother and sister were born with arms. My parents would tell me, “God has a plan for you”.
It was difficult to be different. Kids would pick on me and I was bullied in school. I just ignored the bullies. I remember the quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission”.
Growing up, how did your disability affect your confidence?
It was definitely a journey [to gaining] confidence. Initially I felt that life was unfair and I was angry. People were so focused on my difference. But I realised it was my job to make myself confident.
I adapted to life without arms and learnt to do everything with my feet. It doesn’t feel strange to me, ’cos it’s my normal. I did get a pair of prosthetic arms when I was three, and they were uncomfortable and heavy. They just weren’t who I am, so I stopped wearing them.
My mum also enrolled me in so many activities as a child. When I accomplish some things, it boosts my confidence. Taekwondo was a good outlet for channelling my frustration. [The instructors] modified the curriculum for me. They substituted arm movements with kicks, and I [apply my training outside of classes]. Once, I almost fell forward and didn’t have arms to stop myself from falling, so I went into an immediate roll.
You ended up marrying one of your Taekwondo instructors. What was dating like for you?
I met [my husband, Patrick] when I went to Taekwondo school as an adult, where I could get extra training to take part in the world championship. After he moved on to teach at a different school and was no longer my instructor, he asked me out on a date.
He made me feel very comfortable. He sees me for who I am, not someone he should feel sorry for or help. I don’t want pity — I lead a happy life! But sometimes it’s difficult to convey that [to people].
How do you go about your daily chores?
I can cook, but it’s more difficult [than it is for most people]. I sit on a bar stool at the kitchen counter so I have my feet free, and I use them like hands to chop up food and cook. I even have my own oven mitts customised to fit my feet (laughs).
The only thing I can’t do by myself is tying my hair. My husband ties my hair for me in a ponytail or a bun. Otherwise, I have to wear my hair down, or get someone else to help.
You even got a pilot’s license, something which most people wouldn’t dream of attaining.
I had a fear of flying and losing contact with the ground, so I wanted to conquer that fear by being a pilot. I had to find an airplane that was less complicated and would work for me. I found one that was built in the 1940s. It wasn’t specially designed for me, but it allowed me to use my feet without any special equipment.
I don’t fly often anymore now that I’ve gotten the license. It’s difficult to have to fly at least once a month to keep my license, since I have to travel around the world so much for my speaking engagements. I have been to places like Nepal and Belgium, and I may go to India next.
Have you met other fellow motivational speakers like Nick Vujicic, who was born without limbs? What do you guys talk about?
When we meet each other, we exchange ideas on motivational speaking. There’s always something new to learn about being a businesswoman.
Do I consider myself a #girlboss? Yes! I own my own [motivational speech] company. Every woman has potential to become a girlboss. I love being my own boss and being independent. It really empowers me.
Catch Jessica at her #ElleInspires talk, Jan 27, 2018, MES Theatre @ Mediacorp, 7.30pm. Tix from Sistic. Right Footed the documentary is available on iTunes and Google Play.
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MEDIACORP/ELLE SINGAPORE