Joni Eareckson Tada is a remarkable woman. Injured in a diving accident at the age of 17, Joni has had to endure more physical suffering than most of us ever will. Though she suffered a deep depression and lost the will to live in the aftermath of her accident, she gradually came back to a deeper relationship with God. Because of her early struggles, she has become strong in her faith and is a testimony to the world of how when we are weak, God is strong. Her story is not one of bitterness and despair, as we might imagine it to be, but one of love and victory.
Joni Eareckson Tada was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1950 to John and Lindy Eareckson. She was the youngest of four sisters, Linda, Jay, and Kathy. Her name is pronounced “Johnny”, being he named after her father. Joni inherited her father’s athletic and creative abilities, giving father and daughter a special bond. Her childhood was an extremely happy one. She grew into a young adult surrounded by love, happiness, and security in her parent’s home. The Eareckson family shared a great love for the outdoors, which promoted family togetherness. They shared in various outdoor activities such as camping trips, horseback riding, hiking, tennis, and swimming.
In 1967, after graduating from high school, Joni had her fateful accident. It was a hot July day and she was to meet her sister Kathy and some friends at the beach on Chesapeake Bay to swim. When she arrived, she dove in quickly, and immediately knew something was wrong. Though she felt no real pain, a tightness seemed to encompass her. Her first thought was that she was caught in a fishing net and she tried to break free and get to the surface. Panic seized her as she realized she couldn’t move and she was lying face down on the bottom of the bay. She realized she was running out of air and resigned herself to the fact that she was going to drown.
Her sister, Kathy, called for her. She ran to Joni and pulled her up. To Kathy’s surprise, Joni could not support herself and tumbled back into the water. Kathy pulled her out and Joni gasped for air. Joni was puzzled as to why her arms were still tied to her chest. Then to her dismay, Joni realized they were not tied, but were draped lifelessly across her sister’s back. Kathy yelled for someone to call an ambulance and Joni was rushed to the hospital.
Joni’s life was changed forever that July day in 1967. She had broken her neck – a fracture between the fourth and fifth cervical levels. She was now a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down. While her friends were busy sending out graduation announcements and preparing to go to college in the fall, Joni was fighting for her very life and having to accept the fact that she would have to live out the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Joni’s rehabilitation was not easy. As you might imagine she was angry and she raged against her fate. She struggled with depression and often times she wanted to end her life. She could not understand how God could let this happen to her. Before the accident she had felt that she wasn’t living the life she should be so she had prayed that God would change her life – that he’d turn it around. After months of staring at the ceiling and wallowing in her depression, Joni began to wonder if this was God’s answer to her prayer.
This realization that God was working in her life was the beginning of Joni’s journey to wholeness as a disabled person. She participated in various rehabilitation programs that taught her how to live with her disabilities and she immersed herself in God’s Word to become spiritually strong.
Joni’s life has been a full one. She has learned early on to compensate for her handicaps. Being naturally creative, she learned to draw and paint holding her utensils with her teeth. She began selling her artwork and the endeavor was a great success. There was a real demand for her work. She kept herself very busy with her artwork and gained for herself a degree of independence. She was also able to share Christ’s love in her drawings. She always signed her paintings “PTL” which stood for “Praise the Lord”.
Joni has also become a sought after conference speaker, author, and actress, portraying herself in the World Wide Pictures production of “Joni”, the life story of Joni Eareckson in 1978. She has written several books including “Holiness in Hidden Places”, “Joni”, which was her autobiography, and many children’s titles. But her most satisfying and far-reaching work is her advocacy on behalf of the disabled.
In 1979, Joni moved to California to begin a ministry to the disabled community around the globe. She called it Joni and Friends Ministries (JAF Ministries), fulfilling the mandate of Jesus in Luke 14:13,23 to meet the needs of the poor, crippled, and lame. Joni understood first-hand the loneliness and alienation many handicapped people faced and their need for friendship and salvation. The ministry was soon immersed with calls for both physical and spiritual help for the disabled.
JAF Ministries thus uncovered the vast hidden needs of the disabled community and began to train the local church for effective outreach to the disabled, an often overlooked mission field. JAF Ministries today includes local offices in such major cities as Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, and SanFrancisco. The goal of the ministry is to have ten such offices in metropolitan areas by the year 2001.
Through JAF Ministries, Joni tapes a five-minute radio program called “Joni and Friends”, heard daily all over the world. She has heart for people who, like herself, must live with disabilities. Her role as an advocate for the disabled has led to a presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability for over three years. Joni also serves on the board of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization as a senior associate for evangelism among disabled persons. Joni has also begun Wheels for the World, a ministry which involves restoring wheelchairs and distributing them in developing nations.
Joni has won many awards and commendations throughout her life. In 1993 she was named Churchwoman of the Year by the Religious Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Evangelicals named her “Layperson of the Year”, making her the first woman ever to receive that honor. Also among the numerous awards she has received are the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award, The Courage Award of the Courage Rehabilitation Center, the Award of Excellence from the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, the Victory Award from the National Rehabilitation Hospital, and the Golden Word Award from the International Bible Society.
In 1982, Joni married Ken Tada. Today, eighteen years later, the marriage is strong and committed and they are still growing together in Christ. Ken and Joni travel together with JAF Ministries speaking at family retreats about the day to day experiences of living with disabilities. At the helm of JAF Ministries, Ken and Joni strive to demonstrate in tangible ways that God has not abandoned those with disabilities. And they speak from experience.