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Daily She Says, 'I Can't,' Then Finds She Can

Joni Eareckson Tada, paralyzed since age 17, has spent 25 years aiding disabled people around the world through her ministry.

August 07, 2004|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness."

-- Joni Eareckson Tada's favorite Bible verse, 2 Corinthians 12:9

When she wakes up each morning, Joni Eareckson Tada has to face another day without the use of her arms or legs.

"I think, 'I'm so tired of being paralyzed. I cannot do it anymore,' " she says.

But then she prays, asking God for the strength to get through another 24 hours as a quadriplegic. And the Lord always gives her that, she says, and more.

Her nondenominational ministry, Joni and Friends, is celebrating its 25th year of helping disabled people around the world. The nonprofit has donated more than 20,000 wheelchairs to developing countries and works with more than 1,000 churches to become more disability friendly. This year, Joni (pronounced like "Johnny") and Friends will host more than 600 special-needs families at 11 weeklong retreats.

Tada, 54, has written 30 books and also is an accomplished artist who paints by holding a brush between her teeth. Her upbeat daily five-minute radio show is broadcast on more than 1,000 outlets nationwide -- including KSGN-FM (89.7) in Riverside and KDAR-FM (89.3) in Oxnard. In 2002, the National Religious Broadcasters voted it radio program of the year.

Some of her speaking engagements are booked more than two years in advance. She drives herself to many of them in a customized van, using tiny shoulder shrugs to move her splinted right hand that's tied to a joystick.

And the ministry plans to break ground this year on the $6.5-million, 30,000-square-foot International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, a significant upgrade from the current headquarters in a rented office complex in that same city.

"I'm excited about having a permanent home for our ministry," said Tada, whose nonprofit employs 57 full-time workers and has an annual budget of $14 million. "If a movement is to be permanent, it must outlive its founder."

All this from a woman who is paralyzed below her shoulders because of a 1967 diving accident when she was 17.

"She gives real hope to people who have no hope," said Dr. Sam Britten, recently retired director of the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled at Cal State Northridge. "Her ministry probably has the most phenomenal impact on people with disabilities of any Christian organization in the world."

She says her ministry has grown partly because almost anyone can identify with the honesty of her struggles, even if they don't face challenges as severe.

"They can be average homemakers who wonder how they are going to make it to lunchtime," Tada said. "I think people identify with someone's confession of weakness."

Judy Butler, Tada's assistant for 25 years, said her boss' paralysis has forced Tada into a humility that allows her to gratefully accept the help of others. For instance, it takes Tada 90 minutes to get ready in the morning with a helper.

Tada began her ministry after receiving thousands of letters in response to her first book, the 1976 autobiography "Joni," a 1979 Billy Graham-produced movie by the same name, and an interview with Barbara Walters on "Good Morning America."

Much of the correspondence was from disabled people looking for help or from people who wanted to know how to make their churches more welcoming to people with disabilities.

Tada's ministry began by answering those letters at her kitchen table, then moved to a one-room office. Soon, a grass-roots network of small donors had been established, joined in recent years by larger gifts from foundations, churches and philanthropists.

Initially, Tada concentrated on encouraging churches to install wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms. Along with that, she showed them how to make those with disabilities feel loved in church -- even if it's just with a heartfelt hello.

In 1982, she married Ken Tada, a high school history teacher. He has recently retired and now works at the ministry. They have no children.

Over the years, the ministry has started other projects, including the Wheels for the World program distributing used wheelchairs to impoverished countries and holding retreats for the disabled and their families.

Tada's achievements also have given her a national platform on other issues including stem-cell research -- she favors using only adult or neonatal tissue, not embryos -- and assisted suicide for the elderly. Her belief is that euthanasia is morally wrong and that it should be illegal to kill the vulnerable.

She flew to Florida last year as part of a contingent that met with Gov. Jeb Bush and helped persuade him to order the feeding tube of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo to be reinserted.

"People look at a woman who cannot speak, and they can't relate," Tada said. "They assume she's better off dead than disabled.

"This thinking is picking up steam in our country. We've removed the safeguards that protect people in the most fragile conditions. That's pretty frightening for millions of disabled people."

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