Forty-five years ago, a teenager named Joni Eareckson dove into the shallow water of Chesapeake Bay. In seconds, her life changed from athletic to quadriplegic. She was paralyzed from her shoulders down, due to a broken neck.
There’s no way 17-year-old Joni could have known that going swimming on that hot July day in 1967 would mean she’d spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. But in spite of her tragic circumstances, she has overcome bitterness, endured suffering, and still found meaning in life.
In 1976, Joni wrote about her life-changing experience in an autobiography that was retold in a movie called “Joni,” released in 1980. Both the book and DVD of the movie can be purchased online. Words like “inspiring” and “exceptional” have been used to describe Joni. She became a talented artist, painting beautiful drawings by holding a small brush in her mouth.
Joni Eareckson Tada now lives in California and leads a ministry for the handicapped and their families. Through her ministry, Joni & Friends, some 10,000 wheelchairs are collected every year and distributed in over 86 countries. Week-long Family Retreats are held for those who live with disability.
On her radio broadcast heard on stations across the nation, Joni recently told about a 21-year-old woman named Esther from Ghana, West Africa whose family carried her in a blanket to wait in line for a wheelchair. When she was seated in her own wheelchair, Esther smiled and kept repeating, “Thank you, thank you.”
Esther was given a copy of Joni’s book and told that it was about a lady in America like her who had broken her neck and couldn’t use her arms and legs. Esther learned how Joni came to trust in Jesus and how she could trust in Jesus too.
Another aspect of Joni and Friends is the Christian Institute on Disability whose mission is to establish a firm Biblical worldview on disability-related issues. Joni appeared on Larry King Live several years ago to speak against creating and destroying human embryos for stem cell research. She believes that respect for human life is paramount to securing a cure, and she pointed out the successes with adult stem cells, which she supports.
Joni was personally interested in efforts to save Terri Schaivo’s life, traveling to Florida to speak up for people with disabilities. She, among many others, spoke out against Schiavo’s dehydration and starvation, “The removal of Terri’s feeding tube by court order has now set a dangerous precedent which will affect the lives of disabled people for generations to come.”
She went on to say that Terri was a disabled person, like tens of millions of other Americans. And, though Terri’s injuries were more massive than most, she wasn’t any less a human being.
Joni notes that in Jeremiah 32:14 God says, “I will rejoice in doing them good … with all my heart and soul.” Then she goes on to say, “There’s no inherent goodness in my spinal cord injury; it is an awful thing, but a wonderful, miracle-making God can take something awful in a life and pronounce it good through the application of His grace.”