(Photo: joniandfriends.org via The Christian Post)
A disturbing belief is spreading within the hearts of many around the world and within America: that a person is better off dead than disabled.
But a leading advocate for people with disabilities is fighting that notion and looking to educate the world and the church about the precious lives and rights of "those who seem to be weaker."
The Christian Post spoke to Joni Eareckson Tada on Thursday, the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, about her countless achievements for the disabled community, unwavering faith in God, battle with breast cancer, and her latest recognition by Breakpoint and The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
The 62-year-old evangelical author, who became a quadriplegic at the age of 17 due to a diving accident, just recently learned that she would be honored with the prestigious Wilberforce Award – named after the British parliamentarian who fought for 26 years to abolish slavery in Great Britain – during the annual Wilberforce Weekend held at the end of March.
CP: First of all, how do you feel to have gotten this award? Were you surprised, shocked? How did your husband react?
Tada: I was completely stunned by the news that I would be receiving this year's Wilberforce Award. I had actually nominated someone else, and when I received the first notification, I thought the committee had accepted my nominee. Imagine my surprise when I read it and discovered I was the recipient. My husband? He was just plain proud!
CP: Why do you think they chose you to receive this award?
Tada: For many years I have worked hard to promote a biblical worldview on disability, whether in churches or in the community. I served on the National Council of Disability and helped spearhead the effort to draft the original Americans with Disabilities Act. Most of all, it's been my heart's desire to see the church carry out the mandate from the Gospel of Luke, the 14th chapter where Jesus says to go out and find the disabled and bring them in. My life goal is to see the world's one billion people with disabilities embraced and encouraged by the church.
CP: What do you believe is the greatest achievement you and your organization have accomplished for the disabled?
Tada: I believe we have brought the plight of the world's special needs families before the church, reminding them that "those who seem to be weaker" are actually indispensable. Whether through the 25 U.S. family retreats we sponsor, or the thousands of wheelchairs and Bibles we've distributed in developing nations, our passion is to make certain these disabled people and their families find a place in the fellowship of the church.
CP: What do you believe is the foremost important problem right now facing the disabled and how is your foundation working to fight and overcome this?
Tada: There is a growing premise in this country and around the world that a person really is "better off dead than disabled." This premise reflects a fundamental fear that people have about disability and, unfortunately, it has influenced social policy, such as the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and the destruction of human embryos for stem cell research. Just this week a couple in Oregon were awarded $2.9 million because doctors did not diagnose their unborn child with Down syndrome. When we disregard the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable among us, then the rights of all of us are in jeopardy.
CP: How is your health right now? I know you were battling breast cancer. Have the treatments finished? Are you now in remission?
Tada: My health is great! It's been nearly 20 months since my battle against Stage 3 breast cancer and I have a little under four more years to go before I can be declared cancer free. As long as I take my daily medication, I feel I'm on the right and best track!
CP: With another obstacle to overcome, how do you continue to look to God for strength and reason that everything that He has planned for your life is for His glory and for your good?
Tada: My weakness, that is, my quadriplegia, is my greatest asset because it forces me into the arms of Christ every single morning when I get up. As long as I come to God with my need, I am promised more than enough grace to help me smile, not in spite of my disability but because of it. And that's good!
CP: Is there any words of advice you would like to give those who continue to fight injustice throughout the world?
Tada: The Bible is replete with commands to persevere, especially in the face of injustice. The God of the Bible also heartily commends those who strive for mercy and justice in this world. God is truly on the side of those who work for social justice, especially when we accompany that work with the giving of the Gospel!
Joni Eareckson Tada is the senior associate for Disability Concerns for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and has authored nearly 50 books on disability and Christianity including her best-selling autobiography Joni.
For more than 30 years, she has worked to accelerate Christian ministry in the disability community through her wide array of life-affirming ministries begun by her organization including Wheels for the World, Christian Institute on Disability, the International Disability Center, Family Retreats, and her television and radio programs geared toward encouraging people with biblical insights.
She and her husband Ken Tada are currently traveling around the Bay area, speaking at different venues to energize and inform people about their disability ministry.
To learn more about Joni and Friends International Disability Center and keep updated on their status, click here.