Who Is Joni Eareckson Tada?

Paralyzed at 17, Joni Eareckson Tada has gone on to be a writer, painter, and advocate for the least of these across the world. Here is what you need to know about her.

Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 03, 2022
Who Is Joni Eareckson Tada?

When 17-year-old Joni Eareckson suffered an injury that paralyzed her from the shoulders down, she thought her life was over. She had no idea why God would allow such a tragedy. This year marks the 55th anniversary of the accident, and as Joni reflects on the aftermath of that fateful day, she now understands the purpose behind her suffering. 

God intended my suffering to be a platform for the saving of many lives! And all these years through the ministry of Joni and Friends, we’ve seen thousands of people and families who struggle with disabilities open their hearts to Jesus Christ.” — Joni and Friends Daily Devotional

Top 10 Events in the Life of Joni Eareckson Tada

While there have been many key days in Joni Eareckson Tada’s life, to get the full picture of her life and ministry, it’s important to look at the different periods where these events happened to get the full context.

1949-1967: Born the youngest of four daughters, Joni (pronounced Johnny) Eareckson grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in the loving care of a tight-knit Christian family. She enjoyed the fellowship of her sisters, and countless friends while leading an active lifestyle that included horseback riding, survival outings, hiking, and swimming. 

During Joni’s teen years, she accepted Christ as her Savior, but still occasionally battled temptation and sin. Though happy and grateful for God’s blessings, deep down Joni longed and prayed for God to accomplish a transformative work in her life.

1967-1969: The summer after Joni graduated high school, she joined friends at the beach to swim. On that hot July day, Joni misjudged the depth of the water and dove from a raft into the murky shallows. In her award-winning autobiography, Joni explains that life-altering moment at Chesapeake Bay in vivid detail: 

“I heard or felt a loud electric buzzing, an unexplainable inner sensation. It was something like an electrical shock, combined with a vibration—like a heavy metal spring being suddenly and sharply uncoiled, its ‘sprong’ perhaps muffled by the water. Yet it wasn’t really a sound or even a feeling—just a sensation. I felt no pain.” — Joni: An Unforgettable Story

The accident left Joni permanently paralyzed from the shoulders down. She underwent multiple surgeries and spent half a year pinned horizontally to a specialized hospital bed called a Stryker frame until her severed spine had healed enough to begin rehabilitation. During her long, grueling years of recovery, Joni experienced depression, anger, resentment, and thoughts of suicide. Her despair over the permanency of her quadriplegia caused her to question God’s goodness and even His existence. But God gently guided Joni back to His Word for hope and strength. 

While immersed in her first round of physical and occupational therapy at a Baltimore rehab center, Joni learned how to write by holding a pen in her mouth. Once she’d mastered the skill, she explored more artistic endeavors like painting and sketching. To her amazement and joy, her passion for Lord began to awaken as the painting renewed her sense of purpose. 

1969-1972: Although Joni never regained the use of her hands, she learned how to manipulate her back and shoulder muscles to achieve limited arm movement. Returning home from a progressive rehab center in Los Angeles, Joni could feed herself, operate a wheelchair, and reclaim some of the independence she thought she’d lost forever. 

Her spiritual life gained momentum too. As God began pinpointing sinful areas of her thought life that needed purging, He drew Joni into a group of young Believers who loved the Lord. Together the group studied God’s Word and held one another accountable. 

As Joni struggled to learn how to live as a person with disabilities, God provided her with a strong and loving support system. Among other wonderful family members and friends, her best friend Diana went to extraordinary measures to help care for Joni’s physical needs and became a constant companion in Joni’s spiritual walk. Joni recently wrote about the vital role Diana played in her recovery.

“She constantly pushed and prodded me to take seriously the lordship of Christ in my life … Suffice it to say, Diana made my life as a paralytic fun.” — Foreword from Enough! Learning to Survive and Thrive in Brokenness by Diana Mood

1972-1979: After one of her father’s business colleagues saw and admired Joni’s paintings, the man set up an art show to display her work. The exhibition gained the attention of local media, which caused such an outpouring of community support that soon, Joni’s paintings were in great demand. Along with her artwork, Joni’s story of hope and faith spread through mass media channels like wildfire. She was interviewed by Barbara Walters and Larry King. When a publisher saw her speak on NBC’s Today Show, he offered Joni a book deal. 

Joni’s first book, the autobiography of her loss and triumphant faith, titled Joni: An Unforgettable Story, was released in 1976 and has since been translated into over 50 languages and sold more than 5 million copies. A few years later, the book was made into a movie. As Joni first aired on movie screens worldwide, more than 250,000 people placed their hope in Jesus Christ. 

1979-1982: Joni and a small group of dedicated staff members started the Joni and Friends ministry from a tiny California-based office in 1979. Although she had no skill or experience in leading a Christian non-profit, Joni wanted to pass on to other disabled people the blessings with which God had encouraged her. 

With that goal in mind (plus an excellent board of directors and a faithful team of prayer warriors) Joni and Friends went to work. For over forty years, the ministry has presented the hope of the Gospel and provided practical resources to disabled persons worldwide, mobilizing the global church to help. Today, Joni and Friends hosts retreats for those with disabilities and their families, offers church training resources, and delivers encouragement, practical help, and support to millions suffering. 

1982-1988: After Joni’s accident, she seriously questioned whether she’d ever marry. She and her high school boyfriend parted soon after her recovery began. When another romantic relationship failed after that, Joni figured it might be God’s will for her to remain single. 

But in 1982, God brought Ken Tada, a high school coach and history teacher, into Joni’s life. They met at a local church gathering, and through a series of “coincidences,” they kept running into each other. The couple fell in love and married about a year later. 

Throughout their forty years of marriage, Joni and Ken have faced typical marital challenges along with the unique stressors of Joni’s disability. Their willingness to share openly and candidly about these issues has proven a powerful healing tool for couples struggling in their own marriages. 

During their first year of marriage, Joni also began recording Joni and Friends Radio. The program still airs today on more than 1,000 broadcast outlets. Each four-minute, inspirational message offers Biblical encouragement and promotes disability awareness to one million listeners per week. 

1988-1994: President Ronald Reagan appointed Joni to the National Council on Disability in 1988. She served on the Disability Advisory Committee of the U.S. State Department and as Senior Associate for Disability Concerns for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

The Billy Graham Evangelical Association asked Joni to share her story with over 100,000 people who attended their 1989 Crusade. And in 1990, Joni and Friends hosted ministry leaders from 44 countries at the International Congress of the Church and Disability. 

1994-2007: Wheels for the World rolled onto the scene in 1994. This branch of the Joni and Friends ministry provides wheelchairs and hope to people with disabilities in developing countries. Volunteers collect used wheelchairs from all over the U.S. They then restore the chairs, with the help of trained prison inmates. Finally, each client’s custom-fit mobility device is hand-delivered along with the Gospel message, a Bible printed in their own language, and an invitation to attend a local Christ-honoring church. Wheels for the World continues to thrive today, and with the help of its supporters and volunteers, has distributed over 200,000 wheelchairs and Bibles worldwide. 

2007-2017: God continued to expand the impact of Joni’s testimony and ministry through her public campaigns against euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research. In 2007 Joni and Friends opened the doors to its International Disability Center to usher in a new era of outreach to families worldwide. 

On July 30, 2017, Joni celebrated 50 years of God’s faithfulness since her accident. “Given that many spinal-cord injured quadriplegics don’t survive that long in such good health is a remarkable testimony to God’s sustaining grace.” — joniandfriends.org 

Current: Today, Joni Eareckson Tada continues to live out the loving Biblical commission to “go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.… Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:21, 23). As God continues to bless her and the Joni and Friends ministry, they will pass those blessings on to those who need them most. 

10 Inspiring Quotes and Interesting Facts about Joni Eareckson Tada

“When people with disabilities are embraced, they are God’s best audio-visual aids for the display of his power.” — Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace

Fact: In addition to her other gifts and talents, God blessed Joni with a beautiful singing voice. She’s recorded multiple albums and in 2014, received national media attention for her performance of “Alone Yet Not Alone,” the title song from a film with the same name. Because Joni has limited lung capacity, her husband Ken helped her reach the high notes for the recording session by pushing her diaphragm.

“It sounds incredible, but I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him.” — Joni Eareckson Tada: Marking 50 Years of Transformation

Fact: The day of Joni’s accident her sister Kathy swam nearby, but Kathy never saw Joni dive into the water. If it weren’t for a little blue crab biting Kathy’s big toe, she wouldn’t have turned around to warn Joni to “look out for crabs” and likely would not have noticed that her sister was in trouble in time to save her from drowning.  — Crab to the Rescue

“No one could ever accuse God of ‘sitting back and watching’ while people suffer. How could anyone look at the cross and say something like that?” — Pearls of Great Price

Fact: Joni and Ken have traveled to over 50 countries for their ministry work. When Joni finds herself in a great cavernous hall or cathedral that’s empty, she’ll sometimes belt out the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” to “remind these great places of who designed them, who is King of their space, and that they are only great because God gave the ideas to the architects in the first place.”

“When we learn God’s Word, we are replacing every lie with truth. We are rebuilding our thought patterns, elevating our thinking, and gaining true wisdom.” — Truth vs. Lies

Fact: Joni has received multiple honorary degrees, including a Bachelor of Letters from Western Maryland College; Doctor of Humanities from Gordon College; Doctor of Humane Letters from Columbia International University; Doctor of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary; Doctor of Divinity from Lancaster Bible College; a Doctor of Humanitarian Services from California Baptist University; and a Doctor of Humane Letters by Indiana Wesleyan University.

“Suffering provides the gym equipment on which faith can be exercised.” — Maryland Rehab Center

Fact: “Over the years, Joni has balanced the demands of a busy ministry, writing, and speaking schedule with the help of a secret weapon—her husband, Ken. “Thankfully I’ve got a husband who shares the same vision and common goals. I’ve got a Kingdom-minded kind of a guy.” — Joni Eareckson Tada Reflects on 25 Years of Ministry

Further Reading:

Listen to Joni Eareckson Tada - Daily Radio Messages

Joni Eareckson Tada: Suffering is Sacred

Wrestling the Mysteries of Suffering with Joni Eareckson Tada

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Alberto E. Rodriguez/Staff

Annette GriffinAnnette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.

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