Flying By With Limb Loss

April is Limb Loss Awareness Month, which makes this time a perfect opportunity to talk about examining our perceptions about limb differences.

The author’s aircraft required no investment for modifications. [Courtesy: Jessica Cox]

How many amputee pilots can you name? Hopefully, at least one! 

I can name a dozen or so, but we should all be able to do better than that. April is Limb Loss Awareness Month, which makes this time a perfect opportunity to talk about examining our perceptions about limb differences. 

Maybe you’re a CFI and you’re wondering how you will teach your first student pilot with a disability. Or perhaps you’re a pilot who wants to invite someone who uses a wheelchair to go fly with you. Or you're just a curious person who wants to understand disability culture better. After all, disability is the only minority you could join at any moment in time.

Here are my top disability tropes that hold most people back. 

Inspiration For Living

I once met a checker at a grocery store who took one look at me and said, “It’s so nice to see people like you out and about.” I will admit that it does take me a little more effort than it would for you to go grocery shopping, but that shouldn’t be inspiring. People with disabilities are people first and we want to do the same things as everyone else. 

Key takeaway: If someone rolls up to your airplane in a wheelchair, check how you feel. Are you impressed that they made it to the airport alone? Ask yourself why that impresses you. It might come from a misperception about disability.

Now, if they’re a gold medal Paralympian, you can be inspired by that.

To regain her driver's license, the author was required to make special modifications to her vehicle and take another test. [Courtesy: Jessica Cox]

People With Disabilities Can’t Fly

Knowing what’s legal and what’s illegal is good. But you know what they say about assumptions. 

I’ve been in situations where another person’s assumptions stopped me from doing something that I was perfectly capable of doing. When I first got my driver’s license, someone wrote to the department of motor vehicles that I was a danger to be driving on the road. And the DMV actually revoked my license! I was required to add special modifications to my car and take another test. After passing the test, I asked if I could do the test again, but without the modifications. I scored better without the mods. 

Key takeaway: Communicate and assess. If you’re a CFI, assume that your student will pass their medical but be open with them about all the possibilities. Definitely get them to schedule their medical exam right at the beginning. Or see if they want a sport pilot certificate. 

I’m still surprised by how many people don’t know this: So long as you’ve never been denied a medical and you have a driver’s license, you can qualify to be a sport pilot. 

I Couldn’t Live (Or Fly) Like That

I bet you could. I have faith in you. People are amazing at adapting. There may have been a time when a disability was a death sentence, but that is not true today. Though, we as a culture still have room for improvement.

The options for modifications continue to grow. A few options have been with us the whole time. The Ercoupe that I fly was built without rudder pedals in the 1940s and the model is really popular for pilots with limited use of their legs.

Key takeaway: Get away from pitying people with disabilities or their life circumstances. If you think the world is still creating barriers that make life harder for people with disabilities, use your voice, your vote, your wallet, and your attitude to create change. To take it one step further, don’t suggest ways to cure their disability either.

Teaching a Student Pilot With a Disability Is So Much More Work

Might it take extra paperwork or a few extra flight hours? Possibly. It took me 30 hours to solo and 80 hours to get my certificate. It actually took more work for me to find an LSA Ercoupe that someone could train me in than it did to pass my check ride. But that was before Facebook was popular and I started the same year Reddit was created. The online networking and resources are so much better now.

Key takeaway: It’s not as difficult as you think to teach a student with a disability. 

Key takeaway No. 2: It’s also not as difficult to employ a pilot or person with a disability as people assume. In fact, companies that create a positive work environment for people with disabilities actually make more money.

Accommodations Are Hard or Expensive

Want to guess how much I’ve invested in modifying my Ercoupe so I can fly it with my feet? $0. Each disability is different, but modifications are rarely as expensive as people think. Hand controls for a Flight Design CT, for example, are not cheap but how much will a student pilot spend on fuel, rental fees, and a CFI? The cost of those hand controls shouldn’t make or break the financial plan of flight training. And they cost a lot less than what I spent on my last annual. 

The common assumptions about disability are not rooted in reality. In fact, 26 percent of Americans identify as having a disability. If you don’t feel like 26 percent of the people you see every day have a disability, ask yourself “Why?” Are there unintended barriers where you live and work that hinder people with disabilities? There probably are. For example, I will drive an extra 5 minutes past my grocery store Starbucks to a standalone location. Why? The standalone store has a drive-thru so I don’t have to carry a hot chai tea latte between my chin and shoulder. 

Did you see yourself in any of the above statements? Or perhaps you’ve never really thought too much about limb differences. Or maybe I have given voice to some of your feelings as a person with a disability. Whatever your situation is, I hope that you are challenged, encouraged, and empowered. Let us change the way we think about limb differences. Let us celebrate the progress we have made. And let us keep shining a light on living with disability. Happy Limb Awareness Month!

Born without arms, Jessica Cox is the first and only licensed armless pilot in aviation history. When she’s not flying a 1946 Ercoupe in Arizona, Jessica trains in Taekwondo, mentors children with limb differences, and travels the world as a keynote speaker.

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