FREDERICK, Md. (WDVM) — “Since day one, everyone I think who doesn’t know me personally may have had doubts about what is possible for someone without arms, so I’ve had to live that life from the beginning,” explained Jessica Cox.
As a first grader, Cox remembers her mother speaking with teachers and even students about her daughter’s differing ability.
“Every first day of school, she would bring a picture of me to school and she would talk to the entire class, and that was before I showed up the next day,” Cox explained, “Just to let them know ‘This is Jessica. She was born without arms and she can do just about anything with her feet.'”
Cox recalls her public school changing after 1990 as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.
At the time, Senator Tom Harkin was the lead sponsor of the bill.
“Before 1990 – and I grew up with a brother who was disabled – people with disabilities were isolated, they were segregated from society,” Harkin explained, “They had no rights, they had no civil rights whatsoever. The ADA then changed that.”
The rounded door handles in Cox’s school were changed to lever handles and she was given a modified desk. Those changes were made as the new law banned discrimination against those with disabilities and pushed for accommodations in public facilities like schools.
“Nothing could really stand in the way because there were wonderful accommodations that were made to ensure my success in school and I understood the importance of it because I lived through it,” said Cox.
Cox was hit with doubters again when in her 20s she faced her fear of flying and became one of the first female pilots born without arms.
On Friday morning, she stood beside her airplane, that dates back to the 1940s, at the Frederick Municipal Airport. She began her pre-flight inspection with Harkin by her side.
“I handle this airplane just like anyone else except I have my right foot on the yoke, my left foot on the throttle. I safely, between my toes, fly this airplane,” Cox said.
In celebration of the ADA’s 30th anniversary, Cox took to the skies with Harkin as a thank you for his effort all those years ago as the lead sponsor of the bill.
Cox and Harkin say while great strides have been made in the past three decades, there’s more to do to get those with disabilities to work.
“Coming out of COVID-19 and when the workforce starts to be rehired, people with disabilities should not be put in the last row, they should be right up front,” said Harkin.