Tuesday, July 27, 2010


America celebrated yesterday the 20th anniversary of the passage of the landmark American with Disabilities Act (ADA) with President Obama at the White House.

It was also occasion to meet for the first time the remarkable Jessica Cox (which seemed to overshadow even the fact that it was our first time to report from inside the White House).

She was born without arms, a rare congenital condition that baffled even her doctors.

But that hasn’t stopped her from reaching heights many “normal” people can only dream about, like flying planes or earning a black-belt in Tae Kwon-do or simply driving a car – with her feet.

She was even prettier, bubblier than we imagined, gleaning from the many news reports we’ve seen or read about her extraordinary feats.

We watched how effortlessly she browsed messages on her Blackberry, kept in a backpack that she lugged along during her brief visit to DC.

“He said thank you for being an inspiration and I said thank you, it’s an honor to meet you,” she recounted her conversation with President Obama.

Before the early evening outdoor celebration at the south lawn, a small group – which included Jessica – was allowed in for some private time with the President.

She cracked a joke about the President needn’t worry about Bo, the Obamas’ pet dog, biting her hand, in reference to another presidential pooch who nipped a reporter’s hand.

Mr. Obama, she remembers amusedly, assured her Bo was mild-mannered and better-behaved.

The ADA was groundbreaking legislation that expanded accessibility, punished discrimination and widened opportunities for millions of disabled Americans.

One in six Americans – an estimated 54 million people according to the US Census – suffer from some form of disability.

And yet, winning rights for the disabled was an uphill struggle two decades ago, the President said.

He noted that powerful lobby groups tried to kill the bill on Capitol Hill, worried that mandating the construction of ramps or giving special privileges to disabled Americans would cost businessmen’s pocketbooks dearly.

Mr. Obama appeared to be trying to draw parallels to another piece of important yet contentious legislation – the health reform law – that, he pointed out, would benefit many disabled Americans.

“It grew when you realized you were not alone,” he told the crowd, “it became a massive wave of bottom-up change that swept across the country as you refused to accept the world as it was, and when you were told don’t try, you can’t, you responded with that age-old American creed – yes we can!”

Jessica credits the ADA for opening doors for the disabled.

“In reality, for me to be able to drive, to fly a plane when I really wanted to – just hop into an airplane with my sports pilot certificate – to be able to have that, I realized the ADA has an effect,” she told us.

Yet the struggle continues. The Kessler Foundation and National Organization on Disability conducted a survey that showed 19% of disabled Americans did not get the medical care they needed, mainly because they didn’t have or couldn’t afford health insurance; 21% of the disabled had jobs compared to 59% for those without disabilities; 34% of disabled people said inadequate transportation is a problem compared to 16% of people without disabilities.

But the distance disabled Americans have travelled over the years is largely the result of the individual courage and commitment of people.

People like Jessica Cox who has simply refused to be slowed down by physical limitation.

In fact, she had to leave early to catch a flight to Osh Kosh, Wisconsin that was hosting a big aviation event.

“I’ll be there giving presentations and meeting celebrities like Harrison Ford and Sully Sullenberger and John Travolta, whose first airplane he ever owned was an Air Coupe which is the airplane I fly so I’m looking forward to meeting him,” she says excitedly.

With that she smiled and bid farewell, strung her backpack over shoulder with her teeth and walked towards the 15th Street NW gate.

Like most of the people we saw on the south lawn yesterday, Jessica is proof true grit doesn’t need arms or legs or eyes or ears.

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