Joni Eareckson Tada likely is the most famous person you’ve never heard of..
She has a daily five-minute radio show on about 900 outlets, has sold millions of books, had a movie made about her, founded the faith-based disability organization Joni and Friends, and has been known for her mouth art. In 1967 she became a wheelchair-using quadriplegic (having paralysis in all four limbs) after a diving accident in Maryland.
Like many people with disabilities, she has spent time in hospitals over the holiday season.
As for Christmas 1967, I was still newly injured and wasn’t strong enough to sit up in a wheelchair, said Tada in a telephone interview from her southern California office. Although appreciating the carolers and friends bringing cookies, I was depressed.
Her family tried brightening up her room, including hanging garland along her roommates’ beds.
Then one day I was strapped face-down in a Stryker frame and wheeled into therapy, she said. My occupational therapist suggested I paint white candy dishes and make them into Christmas gifts by holding a paint brush between my teeth. She gave me the brush, and I splashed poster paint on the dishes.
The occupational therapist baked the candy dishes in a kiln, and Joni presented the red, green and gold creations as Christmas gifts to her family.
That meant the world to be able to give something of myself, something that I had made, she said. In addition, her painting of those Christmas gifts that day was the beginning of what would become a successful career creating high-detail fine art paintings.
When visiting hospitals and healthcare facilities today, especially during the holidays, Tada often encourages people with disabilities there to think of others and reach out in whatever means possible to roommates, medical staff, therapists and guests. In part, focusing on others helps reduce feelings of loneliness.
Said Tada, It’s always good to think of others this time of year. I remember painting those candy dishes to give something of myself in a personal way, which is not unlike God, who gave us himself in his son Jesus.
Tada and her husband live near Los Angeles. Her role as a disability advocate led to a presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability in the late 1980s. Next column learn more about Joni Eareckson Tada and the holidays.