After spending more than 50 years in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic, Joni Eareckson Tada is still sharing a message of life and hope with the world.
At the age of 17, Eareckson Tada took a dive into shallow water, breaking her neck and leaving her unable to move her lower body or her hands.
When she learned that she would never walk again, she probably would not have believed that she would go on to become a renowned artist and author and to found a powerful ministry to the disabled called Joni & Friends.
Eareckson Tada joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to share her powerful story, explain her work on The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, and offer us all some much-needed hope.
Also on today’s show, we talk with Heritage research fellow Rachel Greszler about the state of the economy and America’s national debt. Plus, friend of the show Abby Bird shares tips for how to stay productive during COVID-19. And as always, we’ll be crowning our Problematic Woman of the Week!
Enjoy the show!
Virginia Allen: I am joined by Joni Eareckson Tada, author, artist, founder of the multifaceted ministry Joni & Friends, and a member of The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission. Joni, thank you so much for being here.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Oh, Virginia, it’s a joy to be with you and, of course, our listening friends. Thanks for having me on.
Allen: Oh, so good. Well, as I mentioned, you are a part of The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, and the commission was really put together for the purpose of protecting both lives and livelihoods as America tries to come out from this pandemic and recover.
One of the things that I think is so powerful and really strategic about the commission is that it includes leaders in the fields of business, and government, and health care, nonprofits, the faith community, just all across the board.
So, Joni, can you tell me a little bit about your role on the commission and why you feel like it’s playing such a critical role in our nation right now?
Eareckson Tada: Well, I think I was asked to serve as a commissioner on the National Recovery Commission because of my role in disability advocacy.
Yes, I am a Christian. Yes, I have interest in economics and business, but primarily my contributions are disability concerns, concerns of the medically fragile, vulnerable populations, the elderly.
And Virginia, if you think about it, it is these very populations who have been most at risk to this coronavirus.
And of course, if we want to safeguard lives and livelihoods, shouldn’t we as Americans be most concerned about safeguarding the health and well-being, the lives and livelihoods of our most fragile populations, including the medically fragile, the elderly, children with disabilities, adults with disabilities, those who are ventilator-dependent.
I have so many, many friends who are [ventilator]-dependent, quadriplegics, for whom it is already difficult to access good health care.
So, I’m representing their voice on the commission. It’s been my honor and my privilege.
And may I say that Kay James has done a stellar job in moving this commission forward and making certain that our views reach the desks and the hearts of America’s decision-makers, so I’m glad I can have a part in that.
Allen: Oh, so glad, yes. We love Mrs. James at The Heritage Foundation, and we’re certainly blessed that she’s leading this commission and that she chose you to be on it. What a perfect fit.
I do want to ask you about something that you recently said on a video, which it was on your website, you said, “In the worst of times, Christians can and should be at their best.”
You mentioned that you are a strong believer, and I, as a Christian myself, I definitely agree with that statement, but Joni, that’s a lot easier said than done.
How do you think we can really be at our best during a global pandemic?
Eareckson Tada: Well, I’m thinking of Paul and Silas, who sheltered in place. It was an inconvenient place. It was a prison, but nevertheless, they demonstrated contentment and confidence in God. They expressed and demonstrated concern and compassion for the people around them.
So, when I look at Paul and Silas, sheltering in place in that prison and the way they responded, oh, Virginia, what a great example for all of us, as we not only shelter in place right now, but come up and out of this coronavirus season.
Let’s be hopeful. Let’s be confident people, and let’s in these worst of times be the best of followers of Jesus Christ.
I know that my husband and I, we have gotten so much more closely connected with our neighbors across the street. There lives a secular Jew named Bob on one side of our house. Our neighbor is from Israel. His name is Haim. On the other side of our house next to us is a Muslim from Iran named Hossein Majid.
So, here’s our chance to have a real impact for Christ reference in neighbors, checking up on them, when Ken runs to the grocery market, seeing if he can do errands for these people, most of whom are elderly.
So there are all kinds of ways we can be at our best, not only demonstrating the good news, but also declaring it to our neighbors and friends.
But most of all, Virginia, I think we are at our best when we remain hopeful, confident in God and his hold on the future, and also prayerful and expectant.
I’m a big believer that God permits what he hates to accomplish things that he loves, and that’s been my mantra for almost 53 years in this wheelchair.
God permits what he hates, this difficult, paralyzing injury, to accomplish something that he loves, and that is, of course, in me, a changed heart and a closer walk with my God. So, that’s it in a nutshell.
Allen: Yeah. Wow. What a powerful message and so eloquently said. …
We’re living in such unique times right now, and I know that there are people listening who might be feeling really discouraged. Maybe they’ve lost their job, or their life savings, or even a loved one because of this pandemic.
But Joni, you are a woman who has overcome incredible adversity in your own life, and I remember as a little girl, my mom talking about the amazing woman in the wheelchair who painted with a paint brush in her mouth and who hadn’t allowed tragedy to really stop her from pursuing her dreams and from making a difference in the world.
So, for those who might not know your story, could you just give us a little glimpse into the life of Joni Eareckson Tada?
Eareckson Tada: Well, at 17 years of age, I was growing up on a farm in Maryland. I was ready to head off to college, but right before the fall semester, I went swimming with my sister to the Chesapeake Bay, took a dive into some shallow water, a reckless dive, and when I hit the bottom, I found out real fast how shallow it was, and it snapped my head back, crunched my vertebrae, and severed my spinal cord.
There, I’m lying paralyzed facedown in the water, unable to breathe and unable to right myself. Thankfully, my sister Kathy, although she had her back turned to me, a crab bit her toe … she quickly turned around in the water to look for me and scream, “Watch out for crabs!”
But when she turned around into the water, she saw me floating facedown about 25 yards away and that got her attention, and she came swimming after me, righted me up in the water. I’m spitting, I’m sputtering.
Thankfully, I was rescued from drowning, but when the doctors told me I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life without use of my hands or my legs, oh, Virginia, I just plummeted into depression.
And maybe some of our listening friends, although they might not be quadriplegics like me, we’ve all had horribly painful circumstances which [have] plummeted us into discouragement.
I cannot say even in a nutshell how I came up and out of that depression, There’s no one answer. There’s no quick response. But I will say this—and I respect our friends listening who may not share my faith views.
I know you have many listeners of different faith journeys and religious backgrounds, but let me say, someone showed me from the Old Testament a verse in Isaiah 50:10, “For he who walks in darkness, who has not one ray of light, let him trust in the name of the Lord and lean on his God.”
What great advice. Because God had kicked out all the props from underneath me, and I had nowhere to lean.
And at first, I did not want to lean on God because I felt as though he was the one who got me into this awful situation, but I realized I had no choice. So I stopped asking God “Why?” with a clenched fist, and I started to ask him “Why?” with a searching heart.
And I leaned heavily on him because I wanted out of the darkness. I wanted to come up out of depression and self-pity.
So, slowly, I began to take a step of faith and thank God for what he was doing in my life. I thanked him for small things.
I thanked him that my hospital bed was near the windows so I could see the trees. I thanked him that I had a supportive family. I thanked him that I could go to occupational therapy. I thanked him that my friends were busy. I just found many small things, Virginia, to thank him for.
And as I exercise that muscle of gratitude, which was really the muscle of my faith, it grew stronger, and I began to thank God for bigger things, larger things, greater things, and I think that’s when life began to change and my depression began to lift.
I would say to our listeners, no matter what their faith background, we can all look around us and find things for which we can be thankful and to start mouthing the words of thanks, even though you might not feel it.
I think it instructs your heart, and it gives your heart a pattern, an avenue, a path to follow.
I think gratitude with the mouth stirs up gratitude in the heart, and so that’s good advice, whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, whoever. Good advice for anybody who’s feeling discouraged, or has lost their job, or perhaps lost a loved one during this terrible pandemic.
Find things for which you can give thanks, even though it may be small, and a spirit of gratitude will eventually help dissipate that discouragement and depression.
Allen: Joni, I think we could just end the interview right there, and that would be perfect, my goodness. Thank you. Just incredibly powerful to hear your journey. Thank you for being so vulnerable just in sharing what you have walked through and how the lord really brought you through that.
I do want to ask you, you have done so many incredible things with your life and things that so many people would point to and say, “Well, that’s impossible for a quadriplegic to do.” You’re a very successful artist, you’ve written a book, and there’s been films about your life.
Could you just speak a little bit to how some of those things kind of came about? When did you discover that you could paint with your mouth?
Eareckson Tada: Well, when you can’t use your hands, you have to learn how to do what you can with what little you’ve got left.
At that point, when I was in the hospital, without feet that could walk and hands that couldn’t work, my occupational therapist taught me how to write and type holding pencils between my teeth.
And, of course, once I excelled in doing that as a young artist, a budding artist, I began to express myself on canvas with paint and pastel pencils.
That gained the attention of Barbara Walters, and she interviewed me on [NBC’s “Today” show], which went national, and, of course, that message led to the book called “Joni,” and that caught the attention of Billy and Ruth Graham, so I was invited to share my story on multiple crusades.
But Virginia, to boil it all down, what this did, what God was doing, his purpose wasn’t to make me a successful artist or an author. I think God’s plan in all of this has been to open up an avenue, so that I could share my story with thousands of people with disabilities around the world.
Now, I head up a organization called Joni & Friends. We’ve been working for 40 years, until our recent layoffs due to COVID-19. We had 180 employees. Now we’re down to 113 employees, and that’s been heartbreaking to have to go through those layoffs. But it’s COVID-19, what can we say? So, we’re trusting in God anyway.
And we run retreats for special-needs families in the United States, will do nearly 50 this summer, even though some of them might be held remotely via Zoom.
Also, we’ll hold 50 family retreats for special-needs families in developing nations like Cuba, and Peru, and Thailand, and Ukraine, and Central America, and India, and these are just wonderful special-needs families who are desperate for help and hope.
Plus, we distribute thousands of wheelchairs and Bibles to needy disabled people around the world.
So, honestly, Virginia, I don’t know why God allowed my broken neck, but I do know that he has used this wheelchair, my wheelchair, to share his good news with multiple thousands of other people in wheelchairs around the world and children with special needs.
To me, that is more significant than walking. That’s better than having use of my hands, to know that God might use my disability to reach thousands of other people with disabilities with his love. What an honor. What a privilege.
Allen: And you certainly have reached so many lives, and it’s incredible to visit your website, Joni & Friends, and just see all the photos of the children that you’ve worked with, and just so many smiles, and you can tell just really grateful hearts, as they’ve met you, and that they’ve kind of discovered, “Oh, there’s so many other people out there like me, who are walking through life and taking this journey.”
You have been such a powerful advocate for people with disabilities. And in 1988, President Ronald Reagan appointed you to the National Council on Disability, and you advocated for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Could you just speak a little bit to that and explain kind of how that came about and the work that you did on that council?
Eareckson Tada: Well, first let me say that it was a delight to work with President Ronald Reagan and his team. He was a strong advocate of the ADA. It passed, as you know, in Congress, and in 1990, the bill was signed into law by President [George H.W.] Bush.
I must tell you a quick story, Virginia. I was with the National Council on Disability, all 15 council members, on the South Lawn of the White House the day that President Bush signed it into law, and afterward we went back to a hotel for a small reception, our council members, and families.
Our executive director, his name was Paul Hearne, at that time, he was a man with osteogenesis imperfecta. He had formerly served as the director of the Dole Foundation, and he served on many disability rights organizations, but he was our executive director at that point.
Real quickly, he said, “Let’s have a toast.” So we watched Paul wheel himself upfront, and he took his glass of champagne and … he said this: “This was a great civil rights piece of legislation. This is landmark.”
This means that discriminatory policies that prevent qualified people [with] disabilities from finding jobs, those will be removed so there’ll be greater access to more jobs for qualified people with disabilities.
Secondly, this law is great in that public accommodations will have more access. This means, you won’t have to wheel through the kitchen alley, to the back door into the kitchen to get to your dining room table. That’s a good thing. So, this is great. This law is good.
Thirdly, this law is good in that one day we will see mechanical lifts on buses across the country. This is great; this is a good law.
But then he added, “But this law will not change the employer’s heart. This law will not change the heart of the maitre d’ at that restaurant, and it certainly won’t change the heart of the bus driver.” And then he lifted his glass and said, “Here’s to changed hearts.”
Eareckson Tada: I know. Honestly, I started weeping, Virginia. Because no amount of civil rights legislation, no amount of state proclamations, no amount of tightened regulations on curb cuts and what not, these things will not change people’s hearts.
Yes, they’ll create access. Yes, more education and awareness-raising, but it’s not going to change a person’s heart.
I think that’s why we who follow Jesus Christ on the model he gave us, of the way we live with our neighbors, love each other as you love God, that is what’s going to change hearts. That’s the good news, that brings about a transformation in someone’s heart.
So, my time on the council was so warm and memorable. Every time I have a friend come to visit my husband and me here in Southern California, the first thing we [say] is this, “Oh, let’s go to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, it’s such a wonderful place.”
And it’s wonderful to see that there’s a display there about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I always have a sense of warm pride in having played a small part in it all.
But honestly, greater access is achieved when people experience changed hearts because of the love of God. I think you’d agree with that.
Allen: I would. I definitely do. Well, thank you for sharing that story. Those are such powerful moments, and it’s so important to retell those stories because those are the kinds of things that can easily get lost in history and, wow, just pretty incredible.
In addition to being such an advocate for people with disabilities, you’ve also become a very strong voice for the unborn. You say very openly that you believe that life begins at conception. Where did you kind of gain your own pro-life conviction?
Eareckson Tada: Well, to be quite honest, Virginia, when I was in high school back in the ’60s, I saw the very poor choices that some classmates made, young girls who decided to opt for an abortion.
Even after it became legal in 1973, and I thought to myself then back in 1973, “Oh, my goodness.” This decision to which seems to … Well, according to the chief justices back then, their decision seemed to imply that in the U.S. Constitution there was an inherent right to privacy.
So, I’m thinking to myself, then, if people think they have the right to kill a life inside of them, then eventually how will that play out? What are the logical consequences of such a Supreme Court decision?
Well, of course, 1982, a child with Down syndrome was starved to death in the state of Indiana because both the hospital and the parents felt that the state had the right to starve to death that child by the consent of the mother and father … .
Again, it was another indication of … the Supreme Court decision in ’73, how it would pan out. I knew right then that the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities, medically fragile, the elderly, and of course we see it played out now, with the growing premise that you are better off dead than disabled.
So, we see assisted-death laws in nine jurisdictions, states around the U.S., and it all started because of a decision to grant a woman the right to kill that child in her womb, and we are feeling the horrible repercussions of that lamented decision back in 1973.
So what gripped me, Virginia, was knowing that each life is created in the image of God, no matter if that life is a pre-born child or an infant with significant multiple disabilities, whether that life is someone who’s in a coma, or medically fragile, or the life is someone who is extremely elderly.
All life is valued. All life the sacred. We all are image-bearers of our great creator God. And what a woeful decision it was when the Supreme Court justices in 1973 ignored that timeless truth, that all life is to be regarded sacred.
So, I get my passion from the word of God, from the fact that I believe in a great creator God, whose imprint I bear, but my passion is also energized to help reverse that 1973 decision, because it has terrible repercussions on every level of society and on every age group of our population.
Allen: We certainly thank you, just for the work that you are doing in that field. I think it’s so powerful for someone like yourself to be able to speak to that issue and to sit in your wheelchair and to tell lawmakers, to tell citizens across the world, really, that life in any stage, and however you’re living, that it has value. That’s so incredibly powerful.
Now, I do want to ask you, you have just never slowed down, you’ve had this amazing career of just doing all of these things and in government and with your own organization, what’s next for you? What are the kind of other aspirations or things that you hope to accomplish?
Eareckson Tada: Well, I’m glad you’re giving me an opportunity to say this because I know that I am heavily investing myself in the next, new generation.
In fact, at our ministry, we have the Christian Institute on Disability, which provides online training, plus hands-on internships for young people, students mainly who are either occupational therapists, nursing students, [physical therapy] students, or students in social work, recreational therapy, whatever, special education.
We are excited to welcome interns to our International Disability Center, where they practice their faith with sleeves rolled up, and we send them off to a week at any one of our 50 family retreats or overseas.
They help us deliver wheelchairs, they work in orphanages that we partner with in China, and in Cuba, and in South America, and in Southeast Asia.
We give them a real good handle on the biblical worldview on disability, that one is not better off dead than disabled, but if anything, God’s power shows up best in your life when you have a disability that forces you to depend on him.
So I’m going to put a shout-out for any of your young listeners. I would encourage you to visit our website and go to our education and training tab and look up our internship opportunities for 2021 and join us in an adventure to serve people with disabilities around the world.
That’s my passion right now, Virginia, just passing the torch to the next, new generation and getting them excited about demonstrating true, heartfelt compassion to people with disabilities and their families.
Allen: It’s so wonderful. We’ll be sure to put a link to your website in our show notes, so that all of our listeners can go and find that and learn more about those opportunities.
Joni, we just really thank you so much for your time today. We just so appreciate all your insight and all the work that you’re doing on the commission and within the pro-life movement and for those with disabilities.
It’s just incredible to hear all of the accomplishments that you have had and really everything that the lord has done through you.
Eareckson Tada: And I want to thank you, Virginia, and, of course, your listeners, most of whom no doubt hold a conservative worldview.
I thank you for remembering the needs of people with disabilities. That’s so critical, to have a compassionate conservatism, as it were, and lift up the needy, the vulnerable, the weak, the elderly, of course, the pre-born children with disabilities, and infants with disabilities.
So, thank your listeners. I’m so grateful to them for that compassionate conservatism that they hold first to their worldview.
Allen: And we thank you, Joni.
Eareckson Tada: God bless you.