Jessica Cox, 31, is born without arms, but the word ‘disabled’ is not in her dictionary; in fact an encounter with any of the things Jessica does makes the word, universally used, a big misfit to millions of people all over the world.
According to the 2007 national population census conducted by the Ethiopian Central Statistics Agency, (CSA), of the 74 million Ethiopians accounted the number of people with various forms of ‘disability’ stands at around 805,492.
.And according to the first World Report on Disability produced in 2011 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank (WB) “more than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning.”
But Jessica’s visit to Ethiopia in the first week of April this year proves that these are not disabled people as they are commonly referred to. Whether they are blind or have seeing difficulty or deaf or have hearing difficulty they are ‘alternately abled’, as Jessica and her team eloquently refer to them, but they need “to know that they are not any different than any one of us,” Jessica told Addis Standard in Dire Dawa town.
Safely speaking Jessica is one of the very few incredible women that this world ever had. She is the world’s first person without arms to obtain a pilot’s license – in 2008, after years of determined – and perhaps painstaking practice – she became a certified pilot flying with her feet, she took part in dance classes and earned a black belt in Taekwondo when she was just 14, and later on she received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona in Psychology- she wrote her thesis using her feet.
Currently Jessica is a “motivational speaker, mentor, and advocate for the alternately abled.” She travels the world with her motto of “Think outside the Shoe” sharing her story and encouraging people to be creative and innovative. Her courage of doing what many think is impossible for people like her has been a great inspiration for many people around the world.
Jessica Cox’s inspiring visit to Ethiopia was organized by Handicap International, an NGO headquartered in Lyon, France, and is working to help people with disability, which is also executing “inclusive education projects,” a project designed “to ensure children with disability have equal access to primary education” in Dire Dawa, Harari and Somali regions since September, 2011. But she was also here as part of her own project, Rightfooted, a documentary film which tells the story of her life and her desire to redefine what is in general referred as disability.
During her visit she paid a visit to Addis Ababa University, where she delivered one of “the most inspirational messages”, according to Alemayehu Deghun, a third year psychology student, in the presence of AAU’s President Dr. Admasu Tsegaye, U.S. Ambassador Donald Booth and hundreds of students.
But for Jessica, her meeting with one student, who came to her after her lecture and told her of the hope and inspiration her speech has given him was “unforgettable.”
‘Treated like a celebrity’
Jessica flew to Dire Dawa, 501 kms East of Addis Ababa, not as a passenger onboard Abyssinia Air Service but as a co-pilot sitting next to Captain Solomon Gizaw, and her arrival at the Airport was welcomed by singing students.
It was here that she paid visits to two schools, Afetessa and Sabian #1, where Handicap International oversees its inclusive education programs with a financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). “I was treated like a celebrity’ she told Tsedale Lemma, our editor-in-chief, in her Hotel lobby in Dire Dawa. “It was phenomenal.”
She spoke with the parents and the peers of physically challenged children to demonstrate the importance of giving them the opportunity to be educated and included in all aspects of society. The students at Sabiyan in Dire Dawa welcomed Jessica with a model of the school including a wheelchair ramp. She ended up giving “many armless hugs,” she wrote on her facebook page. Her visit in Dire Dawa was accompanied by the presence of several army men who helped control the city traffic.
Jessica’s visit in the east included the city of Harar, an ancient and historical city that shows the rich history of Islam in Ethiopia and where she also paid another visit to two schools – Gey Madressa and Ras Mekonen – where Handicap International runs its inclusive education project.
But perhaps Jessica’s most memorable moment, by Ethiopian standard, may have come from her experience in Addis Ababa with eight year old Tariku Merga Megerssa, born, just like her, without arms, and who taught her how to eat Injera using her clean feet! Just like Jessica, Tariku, a 2nd grade student from Ambo, 110 kms. West of Addis Ababa, uses his feet to do everything from eating to writing and dressing himself up.
Photos – Rightfooted