Seeing Beyond a Person's Disability

Last month, I traveled to Rome to attend the Mirabile Dictu International Catholic Film Festival. I was there for the European premiere of Right Footed, a documentary about my life that features my work with HI in Ethiopia and the Philippines. The director, Nick, couldn’t make it. Neither could my husband Patrick. So, I set off on June 21 for my first solo international trip. 

I’ve traveled to more than 20 countries and been on more flights than I can count so I wasn’t too worried. The one change I made was to pack all my belongings into a backpack as I can’t pull a suitcase by myself. What I did realize very quickly was that, in addition to the usual attention I get as a person without arms, people were going to treat me differently as a person with disabilities traveling alone.

The awkward interactions started as soon as I got to the gate for my flight. A flight attendant approached me and asked: "Are you sure you can put on your seatbelt and get out of it if there is an emergency?” After telling her “yes,” she asked again: "You are SURE you can do that without help?" It was as if she was really in disbelief and wanted me to say no. I wanted, so badly, to tell her, "I'm a pilot, of course I can!" But, I held back and nodded my head. One of the hardest things about not having arms is convincing people I can do things on my own. 

Based on these experiences, and as someone who likes teaching others, I’d like to offer some lessons about interacting with people with disabilities for those of you who aren’t sure what to do.

Lesson 1: People with disabilities are not helpless. Throw out this assumption!

All people with disabilities are different. But, I, and many others, have routines down to a science. We can learn, adapt, and develop some pretty ingenious ways to navigate around our world. Feel free to ask a question, if you have a concern. Just promise me you’ll trust us when we tell you we’re fine on our own.

When my flight landed in Abu Dhabi from Manila for a layover, I got off the plane and headed for the bathroom. When I entered the restroom, the eyes of the female attendant went wide with shock. She kept staring at me, which made feel self-conscious. I realized I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt in a conservative country, and my disability was on full display. Maybe I should have dressed differently. Whatever was behind this woman’s stare, I’ve certainly felt the eyes of strangers staring at me many times.

Lesson 2: Staring is rude! Don’t stare at people with disabilities.

It’s a natural human response to look at people who are different, but staring can make a person with disabilities feel dehumanized. If you’re genuinely curious, introduce yourself and start a conversation.

For the next leg of the journey, we had to take a bus from the gate to get to the airplane. As I stepped off the bus to board the plane, a man who had been staring at me on the bus approached, and insisted that he would take my bag up the stairs, despite my insistence that I was fine. I could have brushed him off, but it was easier to give in. I understood very well how this man felt. It's not everyday you see a person without arms, much less a woman without arms, traveling alone. In the process of this man’s act of kindness, he ended up pulling my hair! We ended up with a more difficult situation than I started with. 

Lesson 3: Thanks, but no thanks. Please don’t insist on helping people with disabilities.

It’s OK to ask if a person with disabilities wants help. However, please do not insist on helping and do not be offended if your offer is declined. By doing these things, you’re putting yourself at the center of the act of kindness. People with disabilities have their own solutions, and sometimes “helping” doesn’t actually help.

My experiences in Rome were largely positive. Some of the people I met were a little surprised when they first saw me, but quickly felt at ease. As usual when visiting new place, I had to figure out how overcome a few new physical challenges. The door to my B&B was locked via a bolt that was three inches above my head. Thankfully, I’m flexible from my all Taekwondo training, because I basically had to do a split every time I needed to lock the door! I felt most disabled when I visited a hair salon but could not explain what I wanted because I don’t speak Italian. I had to take their menu of services back to my B&B and translate it into English, so I could get what I wanted the next day.

My night at the award ceremony was surreal and unforgettable. The best moment was the feeling of electricity that went through me when it was announced that Right Footed had won the “Best Documentary” award. I stood up and was motioned to the front of the room. I felt the urge to cry but stayed composed. Then as is usually the case, my impromptu speech did not come out as eloquently as I had hoped, but nonetheless, it came out as it should.

The reality of the event, and the prize—a golden fish trophy–hit me when I sat down. I thought to myself, “Wow, they really do love it!” 

Faith has always been a huge part of my life. Now that I think about it, it is no surprise or coincidence to me that the world premiere of Right Footed was at this occasion. It was always my hope that through my life, without having to say it, people would know that I am a woman of faith and it would shine though my life and actions.  

As much as I want people to see me as a woman of faith, I also want them to see me as an ordinary person. But it's hard to get past exteriors. As I was waiting in the check-in line at the Rome airport the next day, an airline representative saw that I was traveling alone and exclaimed, "You are very brave!" I thought, “I’m not brave, I’m normal!” Why is it that just because I am traveling alone to another country, but happen to have a disability, I am considered brave? A young woman traveling alone was ahead of me in line, struggling with a huge backpack. She looked flustered as she went back and forth to the counter several times. Why didn’t anyone congratulate her for her courage to travel alone?

Lesson 4: Please don’t tell people with disabilities they are brave or courageous.

People with disabilities are not brave for being in public or doing things on their own. We’re just living our lives and trying to get through the day’s challenges, joys, and tedium like you. Next time you see a person with disabilities, try to see them as an ordinary person first. Try to see how they might be just like you. When you see me jump into a burning building to save a puppy, then you can call me brave!

People with disabilities are people first. If you find yourself caught off guard when you run into someone with a disability, I suggest you ask yourself, “How would I want to be treated?”

P.S. – Lesson 5: Lower those door bolts!

Jessica Cox