Author, artist, singer, radio personality, advocate for the disabled, conference speaker, international celebrity—Joni Eareckson Tada’s resume could intimidate even the most trophy laden among us. Her first book, Joni: The Unforgettable Story of a Young Woman’s Struggle against Quadriplegia & Depression, has sold more than 5,000,000 copies and has been translated into 50 languages.
A second generation of individuals with disabilities is finding courage, strength, inspiration, purpose, and Jesus Christ through the multi-faceted ministry of this amazing woman. She continues to embody the reality of God’s promise to work all things together for good in the lives of those who love him and who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Pastor and author Francis Chan wrote the Foreword in Joni’s 2012 re-release of her autobiography. He captured my thoughts perfectly when he wrote: “We live in a culture that chooses heroes too quickly, and for the wrong reasons. In Joni, God has given us an example worth following. She inspires me…you would do well to imitate her as she imitates Christ.”
His Ways Are Not Our Ways
A warm July afternoon in 1967, it had been a beautiful day on Chesapeake Bay. Blonde, blue-eyed, athletic Joni Eareckson, the youngest of four girls in a close-knit Baltimore family, was on the threshold of a whole new chapter of a life she described as “charming.”
She had recently graduated from high school and was relishing the last carefree days of summer before heading off to college. Life was simply idyllic. The Earecksons owned a horse farm about 20 miles outside of Baltimore. There was always something active to do and a sister willing to come along. On that particular afternoon, her sister Kathy was her companion.
A dive into shallow water, a spinal cord injury at the fourth cervical level, and the anticipated, new chapter of life began on that very afternoon in a much different way than Joni had imagined. She would spend the rest of her life as a quadriplegic. It was a bitter pill for an 18-year-old young lady—but especially so for this one who was a talented athlete, as well as a very bright scholar. Such a bright future waited. Was it over literally before it began?
Just two years prior to that fateful day, Joni had attended a Young Life weekend in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It was there where she really understood in a personal and deep way that she was a sinner in need of a Savior. She had been in the Reformed Episcopal Church her entire life, had memorized much liturgy and considered herself a “Christian,” but it was at the camp in her sophomore year of high school that she discovered what it was to have a personal relationship with Jesus. And that relationship, though very much in its beginning stages, was a critical pillar God put into place before He called Joni to a challenge that required strength beyond her strength.
In the first days after the accident, there seemed to be one indignity after another visited upon this young girl who was quite used to being a leader. Sometimes there were doctors, nurses, or other personnel who talked over her as though she had damaged her brain as well as her body in this accident. She vacillated between “Thy Will be done,” and “Please, God, just let me die.” Friends and family stayed close day and night, but weeks went by before someone finally told Joni exactly what her injuries were and the gravity of the prognosis.
The day the doctors used the word, “permanent,” to describe her injuries was a day that was at least as dark as the day of the accident. With her own vision of “hope” and “future” stripped away, there are really no words that would adequately express how Joni felt at that moment.
What in the world was God thinking in allowing this devastating, life-altering, life-sapping, destructive event?
What Came Next
Joni’s “rehab” involved two intense years of different kinds of physical therapy. It was during her six-month stint at Rancho Los Amigos in Los Angeles that she made great strides toward a new “normal,” but she continued to expect a particular kind of miracle that was not to be.
As she gave a 110 percent effort at whatever she was asked to do, in the early days she was certain that, “the best thing for my life would be to get back on my feet because I was such an athletic person. I could not imagine that God could possibly give me anything that would outweigh the trauma of being paralyzed. I just prayed for healing, and for me, it was always physical.”
Such a train of thought made for some big disappointments. She was always looking for the magic formula whether it was her childlike faith or her works of a pleasant attitude. Joni would think, “Aha. This prayer vigil will be the thing. Or this particular guru who claims healing powers will be the one. This time—this event—surely this will be the moment when God heals me.” Acceptance came gradually, and with that acceptance came a tremendous amount of spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of this unique journey that God had ordained for Joni Eareckson before the foundation of the world.
Joni went on an exhaustive search for answers in scripture. Her moment of new clarity came in the first chapter of Mark in the passage where Jesus had spent a long and tedious day healing various infirmities. The next morning he went to a solitary place to pray and could not be found as the crowds returned for more of the previous days’ supernatural display.
And Jesus took a look at all the diseased people and basically said, “Let’s go somewhere else.” Joni says, “And I thought how cruel, but then, I realized that this was really—Jesus was revealing his priorities—because he said, ‘Let’s go somewhere else to the other nearby villages so I can preach there also, for this is why I have come.’”
She remembers really laboring over that statement. It slowly began to dawn on her that it wasn’t that God was unconcerned for her physical need. “It was just that his priority was for my soul’s need, which was far deeper and more profound.”
Forty-seven years into her disability she looks back and says, “And the joy that he has given me, having experienced a greater degree, I think, of grace and faith and strength and courage and perseverance really does far outweigh any joy or grace or courage I could have experienced on my feet.”
Acceptance was a victory of sorts, but it did not mean the road was suddenly easy. There were intermittent struggles with depression, and it seemed that as Joni overcame one obstacle, another one presented itself. But perseverance and God’s sufficiency did indeed show itself with every new challenge.
Joni the Artist
Prior to her accident, Joni had shared a love for drawing with her father who was also a fine self-taught artist. As the world of disabilities became her reality, she learned compensatory skills that were extraordinary. With a brush or a stylus between her teeth, Joni rekindled her love of drawing achieving results that were – for lack of a better word – amazing.
When Joni returned to Baltimore after her rehab in California, she began to showcase her art at some local art fairs in and around Baltimore. Joni always signed her canvas “PTL” (Praise the Lord) and the question of “What does that mean and why do you do that?” was as predictable as can be. Joni had the opportunity again and again to talk about her relationship with Christ and to say, “My art is a reflection of how God can empower someone like me to rise above circumstances.”
A local NBC morning program did a feature segment on her that ran in the Baltimore area. Producers of The Today Show saw it. “Oh my goodness,” says Joni. “That opened an incredible door to things I could never have dreamed.”
The next thing she knew she was being interviewed by Barbara Walters. Then a Christian publisher was asking her if she would write her autobiography. Billy Graham was calling and asking about doing a movie. If this wasn’t all the perfect illustration of Ephesians 3:20 and “…him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us…” then nothing was!
Joni had literally “fallen” into ministry.
Joni and Friends
With the release of her book Joni in 1975 and the movie by the same name in 1979, the speaking requests poured in. Suddenly Joni Eareckson was a household name, an American hero, and a celebrity. Everyone wanted to meet her, to hear her speak, to buy her art. Joni made two huge decisions at that point.
She decided to remain in California after she had completed the movie, and she decided to set up a non-profit organization to advocate on behalf of those with disabilities. Such was the beginning of “Joni and Friends,” a multi-pronged international ministry that began by providing wheelchairs, inspirational and practical resources, and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the disabled and all of those who are affected by the disabled person’s limitations. Joni’s unique personal experience equipped her for the task in ways that would never have been possible had that life-altering moment in 1967 never have happened.
Here in the United States, Joni has served on the National Council of Disabilities under two different presidents. It was during her tenure that the original Americans with Disabilities Act was drafted. Although it did not pass in its original form, the legislation was redrafted and passed into law in 1990.
In 2014, Joni and Friends delivered its 100,000th wheelchair overseas. As she says, “When we take wheelchairs into a developing nation, it’s just a point of entry to then follow up with a whole series of resources. It also helps change the cultural view of disability in that developing nation.” There are many places around the world where the disabled are severely discriminated against.
Much more than just a ministry that dispenses wheel chairs, Joni and Friends established the Christian Institute on Disabilities, a division that advocates aggressively for causes related to the sanctity and dignity of human life. Such causes run the gambit from more public access and opportunities for the disabled to the hotly debated issues of eugenics or physician-assisted suicide. There are educational courses, training seminars, and even college credit courses that Joni has had a hand in creating. Few have done as much as this one lady to champion the cause—and the worth—of individuals living with disability.
Joni believes we are living in a time when the sanctity of human life is under great assault. “I think it is because we’ve taken God out of the public conversation, and Christians feel timid. They feel fearful. There’s a great deal of cowardice about engaging the public on issues that have to do with the God of the Bible.”
Fearful is not really in Joni’s vocabulary anymore. That is one demon she has definitely faced before, and she has found her God to be faithful and able. “If we are to safeguard the right to life, then it begins by reintroducing a conversation of the God of the Bible back into the moral consciousness of our nation. It means feeling free to speak up at the hair dresser, at the nail parlor or at the PTA meeting or the town hall or the choir rehearsal or at the dry cleaners—you know, conversing with people, talking freely about who God is and the difference He makes in a family’s life because I think we’ve forgotten—or at least we don’t remember how our conversations and how the expression of our ideals and ideas have a direct bearing on the collective conscience of a nation.”
Joni and Ken
Ken Tada was certainly not the first surprise God brought into Joni’s reconfigured life post-accident. She had moved past the painful parting with the sweetheart she had expected to marry years before. Life had certainly been nothing like she had pictured, but God had definitely sustained her, led her, blessed her, and given her far more than she could ever have thought to ask.
Joni was in church one Sunday morning in 1980. The guest preacher that particular morning was not holding her rapt attention, and as her mind began to wander, her eyes caught sight of a particular man several rows in front of her. Feeling a little guilty about her inability to follow the speaker’s rather rambling sermon, she began to pray for that stranger although all she could see was the back of his head.
When the service ended, Joni considered wheeling over to the stranger to tell him she had prayed for him that morning, but she decided that would be pushy on her part, so she did not.
A few weeks later, this stranger showed up again and was introduced to Joni by mutual friends. Ken was a high school teacher and coach and a strong believer. Joni and Ken soon became inseparable. They married on July 3, 1982.
Their 32 years together have not been without challenges. Joni tells with transparency and total vulnerability the up and down story of their marriage. “I think we deal with the same issues in marriage that all couples deal with—unmet expectations, bruised feelings, competing rights—but a disability just tends to magnify those problems,” she says.
Joni’s greatest daily struggle has been against chronic pain. She says, “The quadriplegia is almost a cinch next to dealing with chronic pain because it can so quickly rob you of your focus. It just screams for your undivided attention, and it becomes just hard to function at times when pain becomes blinding.”
The fact that they were both committed to Christ and to their marriage did not mean there have not been some tense moments when Ken felt overwhelmed and Joni felt guilty that she was so needy in many ways. As Joni said, “Living together in a real marriage is always different from what we envisioned at the start.”
When Stage III breast cancer intruded in their lives in 2010, there was an unexpected blessing in the midst of it all. There was a new closeness and a new sense of being one. Joni said, “I really fell in love with Ken all over again as he really championed my cause among these doctors and nurses. It was very endearing.”
Approaching her 65th birthday this month, Joni has lived as a quadriplegic for 47 years. It has been that long since she could use her hands or her fingers for even the simplest task. She has totally surpassed the life expectancy of quadriplegia, and she has accomplished so much more than the healthiest and most determined political advocate you could name who has rallied for any given cause. She has given her life to make the lives of other disabled people more tolerable and she has given all of us able-bodied people the gift of seeing through her eyes what it is to grapple every day with a disability.
She shares in her recent update to the Joni book her daily routine of waking up and hearing the voices of her cadre of girlfriends who arrive every morning to get her out of bed and dress her for the day. Her thoughts are frequently these: “Oh, God, I have no strength for this day. I can’t “do” quadriplegia anymore. But I can do all things through You, as You give me strength. So please, Jesus, press me to your side, give me Your grace. Be large in my life today.”
Joni is wise. She has definitely earned her wisdom in the school of great hardship. I love her closing thoughts. “Life is hard. God has wired it that way. But He is ecstasy beyond compare, and knowing Him in the trials is more than worth it. After all, there really are more important things in life than walking.”
For more information on Joni and Friends see JoniandFriends.org. In Mississippi, contact Martie Kwasny at JoniandFriends.org/Jackson. You can also reach her at 601.594.0148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.