By Daniel J. Vance
For more than 30 years, quadriplegic and spinal cord injury survivor Joni Eareckson Tada has been an advocate for persons with disabilities.
Unlike another spinal cord injury survivor, Christopher Reeve, who often pushes for increased spending on spinal cord injury research to yield a cure, Eareckson Tada's major thrust has been to improve the present quality of life for all persons with disabilities.
"Families [affected by disability] are sometimes stuck in the depression I used to be in," Eareckson Tada told me recently at a Joni and Friends family retreat in Ohio. "[That depression] can be like a low-grade fever that never goes away." But after her faith-based retreats families often go home changed for better, she claimed, in part because they've met others with similar backgrounds and drawn encouragement.
Besides her family retreats, she has a daily 5-minute radio show on more than 900 outlets and an affiliated organization Wheels for the World that collects wheelchairs for distribution to persons in third world countries. Her autobiography Joni has sold more than two million copies.
In 1967 a healthy, 17-year-old Joni Eareckson dove into the Chesapeake Bay, hit her head on rock and moments later arose a quadriplegic. It was an unexpected baptism into disability.
The National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA) defines spinal cord injury as "damage to the spinal cord that results in a loss of function such as mobility or feeling." Eareckson Tada is one of an estimated 225,000 American survivors, of which 80 percent are men and 55 percent were at the time of their injury between 16 and 30.
Don't say she's wheelchair-bound. "Those words used to bug me to death," she said. "Because I'm not bound. I'm not a prisoner. I'm not a helpless victim. However, the older I get, the more forgiving I've become (of people who say that). If people want to say I'm wheelchair-bound, they can. But I'm not. They may think it, but I'm far from it."
She and her husband Ken live in southern California. Now in her early '50s, she has written more than 30 books, appeared in the full-length feature film Joni, and is well known internationally for her colorful "mouth art." Her role as disability advocate led to a presidential appointment and three years of service on the National Council on Disability.