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Interview with Inspirational Joni Eareckson Tada

Aired August 3, 2004 - 21:00   ET


JONI EARECKSON TADA: You know, I dream a -- I dream a lot about walking...


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight: At 17, a diving accident left her quadriplegic, too paralyzed to even act on suicidal urges. And then, a miracle. She's finds faith in God that's done so much more than help her survive. And now, she sees her tragedy as a blessing.

An inspirational hour with the remarkable Joni Eareckson Tada -- next on LARRY KING LIVE.

A pleasure to welcome to LARRY KING LIVE tonight an extraordinary lady, Joni Eareckson Tada. At 17, a careless dive into shallow water left her a quadriplegic. Yet, she's a best selling author and artist.

Her daily radio program received the Radio Program of the Year award from the National Religious Broadcasters. She's founder and president of Joni and Friends. You'll be seeing some of her extraordinary paintings through the show tonight, and she paints with the brush in her teeth.

How did all this happen? What happened to you? You were 17 years old. Where was this?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I was back in Baltimore. I had just graduated from high school.

KING: That's where you grew up?

EARECKSON TADA: That's right. Had my bags packed for college, and...

KING: Where were you going to go?

EARECKSON TADA: Western Maryland College. And I wanted to be a physical therapist. So, I ended up getting into it on the wrong end, I think.

KING: Ironic.

EARECKSON TADA: So, my sister said, "Hey, let's go for a swim." And I went down to the beach with her, the Chesapeake Bay. And there was a raft anchored not too far offshore. Swam out to it, hoisted myself up on to it, took a reckless dive into what I thought was deep water.

But I -- my head hit the bottom, it snapped my head back and crunched my fourth cervical vertebrae. And I was underneath the water hoping that my sister Kathy would notice that I hadn't surfaced from my dive. But she -- she was ready to step up onto the shore out of the shallow water, and a crab bit her toe.

And she whirled around in the water to scream to me, "Joni, watch out for crabs." And when she turned around, she saw my peroxide blonde hair -- I had just Nice n' Easy'ed my hair the night before -- and was kind of floating against the murky, you know, water.

And she saw that shock of blonde hair, and she came swimming after me and pulled me up out of the water. And I can't eat a crab salad sandwich to this day without thanking God for those little critters.

KING: Were you conscious all the time?


KING: Never lost consciousness?


KING: Did you know something serious was wrong?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I thought maybe I had stunned myself or -- it all happened so quick, but yet, at the same time, it felt so slow. And when my sister pulled me up out of the water, I was spittering and spattering and gasping for oxygen. And I saw my arm slung over her shoulder, and yet I couldn't feel it.

KING: No pain?

EARECKSON TADA: No pain. But then and there I knew something awful had happened, because I felt as though my arm were somehow dismembered from my body. And they whisked me off to the University of Maryland hospital, where I stayed for quite a long time.

KING: What was the prognosis? A broken what?

EARECKSON TADA: Broken neck at the fourth/fifth cervical level.

KING: Causing?

EARECKSON TADA: Quadriplegia.

KING: Quadriplegia is?


KING: You don't have to lose the limb, right?

EARECKSON TADA: Right, just you can't use your hands or your legs. I have a little bit of shoulder muscles and pretty good biceps.

KING: Yes?

EARECKSON TADA: But that's about it.

KING: So, you can't move your fingers?

EARECKSON TADA: No. But if you reached out and...

KING: I could touch it.

EARECKSON TADA: Yes, right. It looks good. And often, I'll reach my arm out with what strength I have to welcome a handshake, although I can't feel it, it sure does look good.

KING: No feeling at all in the legs or...


KING: So, you have -- you have no -- if someone punched you in the stomach, you wouldn't feel it?

EARECKSON TADA: For 37 years, it's been a long time I've been paralyzed like this.

KING: Why are you Joni?

EARECKSON TADA: My dad wanted a boy, and I was the last of four girls. And before I even came out of my mommy's womb -- I had my father's name. And so...

KING: And you are married to a Mr. Tada for a long time, right?


KING: What does he do?

EARECKSON TADA: He's a retired U.S. government and history teacher, and now he works at our ministry at Joni and Friends. And we travel to our family retreats, take wheelchairs around the world. We do lots of fun things together.

KING: Did you ever expect to be married, considering your physical situation?

EARECKSON TADA: Oh, my, when I was in the hospital, I thought, "This is it. Oh God, my life's over." I was depressed. I was discouraged. There were many nights I would wrench my head back and forth on the pillow violently, hoping to break my head up at a higher level.

KING: You wanted to die.

EARECKSON TADA: I wanted to die. Or if one of these -- one of these times when they might sit me up in one of those power jobs, one of those nifty wheelchairs, perhaps I could career myself off some high curb and thereby break my neck up higher that way.

KING: Were you like planning it? How I would do it if I got the chance?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, then I thought I'd only get brain injury, would only make things worse. So, I decided one night, lying there in the hospital, I said, "God, if I can't die, please show me how to live, because I don't like paralysis. I'm not prepared for this. I don't know anything about it. This is not what I bargained for in life. God, if I can't die, show me how to live."

KING: And?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, shortly thereafter, friends of mine came into the hospital with their bibles. And they'd sit on the edge of my bed...

KING: Were you a believing -- were you a religious person?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, you know, I...

KING: You went to church, but...

EARECKSON TADA: I went to church, but I tucked Jesus away in the back hip pocket of my Levi jeans. And when I prayed, it was like pulling the levers of a vending machine. And I thought...

KING: Rote?

EARECKSON TADA: Yes. I thought God -- I thought I had done God a great big favor by believing in Him. But...

KING: So, what happened when the friends came?

EARECKSON TADA: They would open up their bibles. First, they'd give me pizza or Winchell's donuts. Or they'd sit on the edge of the bed, and they'd bring their guitars. We'd watch NCAA football games. They treated me like a person, not a cripple.

And when they opened up their bibles, they pretty much won the right to be heard. So...

KING: Was it a -- slow, then?

EARECKSON TADA: Yes. And one of the first bible versus anybody gave me was out of the New Testament, I Thessalonians 5:18. And it says there, "In everything, give thanks, for this is the will of God and Christ Jesus concerning you."

I said, say what? You can't be serious. I mean, I don't feel thankful for this. No way. And my friend said, "Joni, wait a minute. It doesn't say you've got to feel thankful. Trusting God has nothing to do with trustful feelings. It says give thanks. And so, take a step of faith and do it."

KING: How'd your family deal with all of this: your sisters; your parents?

EARECKSON TADA: They were incredibly supportive. I mean, we were athletic, hiking, camping, playing tennis. And for them, it was as much of a shock as it was for me.

KING: Did you then become, for want of a better word, a kind of reborn, a convert?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I think up until that point, following Jesus Christ, for me, was a religion. But after my accident, it became a warm, deep, personal relationship, because the weaker I became, the harder I had to lean on Him. But the harder I leaned on Him, the stronger I discovered Him to be.

And honestly, Larry, 37 years later, don't be thinking I'm spiritually strong. I'm no veteran at this paralysis thing. I'm not a professional quadriplegic. I wake up in the morning many times, and I'll hear my girlfriend come in the front door. And she'll be running water for coffee in the kitchen, and I know she's going to come in my bedroom in a minute. And she's going to give me a bed bath, get me dressed, sit me in a wheelchair, brush my hair, brush my teeth, blow my nose.

And there are times I'm still having my eyes closed thinking, God, I have no strength for this. I can't face this. I can't -- I have no resources for this. I have no smile for this woman.

But you do, God. You have strength. You have resources. Can I please borrow your smile? And by the time my girlfriend comes through the door with that cup of coffee and a happy good morning, I can give her a smile already hard fought for, already won straight from heaven.

KING: We'll be right back with this extraordinary lady. Find out why she think it's not her strength. Don't go away.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ow, ow, ow, ow, a crab got me. Joni, watch out for crabs? Joni?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got her back. I got her back. OK. OK. Hold her head. Look out, I got her. It's OK.




KEN TADA: I had never taken anybody out in a wheelchair before, but I knew that if I was going to take Joni out by myself, that I was going to have to lift her out of the wheelchair and put her in the car and take her out of the car and put her in the wheelchair. And I didn't want anybody else to go along with us on our first date.

So I purposed to be able to curl a certain amount of weight before I went on this date on the weekend. And fortunately, I did not drop her on our first date. And we got to the restaurant, and everything else was great.


KING: We're back with the painter and broadcaster, Joni Eareckson Tada, an amazing story. You'll be seeing some of her paintings. We'll be showing them along. And where do you exhibit, by the way?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, my -- I just had an exhibit at the Biblical Art Center in Dallas. I've exhibited at the Arco (ph) Plaza in New York, and Rubino (ph) galleries.

KING: Do you sell?

EARICKSON TADA: I sell my prints and limited editions. And all proceeds go to the Ministry of Joni and Friends to help other people, other quadriplegics, other friends with disabilities like mine.

KING: And you paint all kinds of things, right? People...


KING: ... and settings, and all with a brush in your teeth.

EARICKSON TADA: Yeah, well, they should make them taste better, is what they should do.

KING: Well, we'll get to that in a minute. How do you know that this faith is some sort of crutch, and that it's you doing it, your strength, you don't need the strength of someone else. It's you.

EARICKSON TADA: It's not me. If you could be the fly on the wall in my bedroom on any given morning, or if you could live in my skin for just a few days with quadriplegia, you would see that it can decimate you. It just lays you flat. You come undone, you have no resources. And sometimes I think that my affliction is like a sheepdog snapping at my heels, making me run down the road to the cross of Jesus Christ for help, where I just ain't got nowhere else to go but God, because it is so hard.

KING: Do you understand those people who, in pain, for whatever reason, want to die?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, I certainly do, because...

KING: Should they be allowed to die?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, I feel that each life is a gift from God, that within our deepest inner resources, there are gifts and talents and abilities. I believe that each of us has been born for a purpose. I believe that no life, no life is wasted.

KING: How about if you're in extreme pain? EARICKSON TADA: I think if you're in extreme pain, there are pain therapies, there is pain management that is available. When I was injured, my problem wasn't my paralysis so much as it was my clinical depression. And I'm just so grateful that there were no Jack Kevorkians around 37 years ago anxious to put three grams of phenobarbital in my veins.

KING: Do you -- are you treated for depression now?


KING: Were you ever treated for depression?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, when I was in the hospital, I went to a lot of therapy sessions and talked to other people with disabilities. The thing that helped me most was getting my attention off myself and helping other quadriplegics who were more functionally limited than I was.

I'll never forget when I was in occupational therapy, they were teaching me how to write with a pencil between my teeth, and I kept spitting it out on the floor. I mean, that's for disabled people, I'm not going to do that.

But my occupational therapist would wipe it off with alcohol, stick it back in my mouth. And finally they wheeled into occupational therapy this ventilator-dependent quadriplegic named Tom. And my therapist went up to him and said, now, Tom, you can't use your hands, giving him the same spiel she gave me, but you're going to have to learn how to do things with your mouth. Here, take this pencil and let's see you practice writing the alphabet.

And in my heart of hearts, I was saying, come on, Tom, spit it out, spit out the pen. But when I watched him laboriously, meticulously begin to write A, B, C, I felt so ashamed of myself. And I realized that there were other people with more pressing challenges and greater needs than me. And I wanted to help them.

KING: How did you start to paint?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, just that way. My occupational therapist said since I could no longer use my hands, I was going to have to learn how to use my mouth. And so I began splattering, poster paint on ceramic trays for Christmas gifts for my family and friends. And boy, you know, I'm not bad at this, this is incredible. I mean, the talent really does lie in your head, not in the way you hold the pen with your hand. And I was so amazed, so impressed to see...

KING: Because you use great colors.


KING: How does it work? They bring you the oils?

EARICKSON TADA: No, I have got an easel at my -- at my office. And it's adjustable. It can move up and down with the flick of a switch. And I have my pencils, pastel pencils nearby, and I clench them in my teeth. And...

KING: You have to pick them up out of the thing, right?


KING: Because you can't hold them.

EARICKSON TADA: Right. I've chewed through many pencils to get a good design. I'll tell you.

KING: Does it take long?

EARICKSON TADA: It takes a long time. I take perhaps six, eight months to create one rendering, and sometimes up to a year. But...

KING: Boy.

EARICKSON TADA: I like taking my time. I think it...

KING: It requires some patience, doesn't it?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, that's the bruising of a blessing of this disability, Larry. I just don't think I would be as persevering, I don't think I would be as patient. I don't think I would care about other people's needs. But this wheelchair, I think, has been God's way of turning my life inside out, and jerking my priorities and values right side up.

KING: Did someone then tell you one day you can paint?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, my daddy was an artist. And so I used to sit on his knee, and when I was a little girl, he would fold his big hand around my little hand and he'd take our hands together and dab the brush in his pallet, and together we would swirl these beautiful colors on his canvas. And I always thought, gee, daddy, look what I'm doing. But it was never really me; it was my dad. And in a way, when I paint now, I often think that the inspiration I receive from the word of God, the Bible and from Jesus Christ is what -- it's like the father, it's like gee, daddy, look at what I'm doing. My heavenly father is giving me the chance to create something that will inspire others.

KING: What's the hardest thing to do, I mean, straight lines? What's the hardest thing to do?

EARICKSON TADA: Oh, boy, that's a good question. I think the hardest thing to do is to paint big. I can't wait for heaven to get hands that work and feet that walk, and I'll not only jump up, dance kick, do aerobics, but I'll paint big, splashy murals.

KING: Murals, you want to do murals?

EARICKSON TADA: Yeah, I'd like to do a mural.

KING: We'll be right back with Joni Eareckson Tada. We'll talk about Joni and Friends, and lots of other things. Don't go away. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


EARECKSON TADA: I work very slowly, to make this painting look like it's been done quickly. My disability just requires that. I want it to look like hands did this. That means I have to work cautiously, meticulously, prudently, slowly, to make it look easy and quick. That's not a bad lesson for life.


KING: We're back with Joni Eareckson Tada.

You were two years in the hospital. This wasn't a one month conversion, this was a process.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, back in the late '60s, rehabilitation philosophy wasn't as a advanced as it is now. And I was stuck in on geriatric unit in a state institution for almost a year, before I was sent out to Southern California to do my rehab at the Ranch Los Amigos Hospital, and that's where I learned how to paint.

KING: And the process for belief was slow?


KING: It wasn't waking up one day and say, I have found the lord.

EARECKSON TADA: I had so many questions, why -- why would God allow this to happen to me.

KING: Why do bad things happen to good people.

EARECKSON TADA: Right, all those questions. And how could a good God be good and loving, if he allowed these things to happen. And when I began to search the Bible, I began to see God hates suffering. He's bending over backward to alleviate it. He...

KING: Gives you free will to have it.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, he sent his son, Jesus Christ to relive it. And plus he tells us to visit the prisoners, and cloth the naked, and take care of the orphaned, and the homeless, and the widow, and console the dying and comfort those who need encouragement. And I have been given so much, my heart is filled to overflowing for gratitude for all that I've been given, that I want to give it back.

KING: Do you feel a bond with Chris Reeve.

EARECKSON TADA: Very much so.

KING: Have you met him.

EARECKSON TADA: No. I haven't. I've... KING: You ought to. We could arrange that.

EARECKSON TADA: Oh, that would be fun. I have tried to reach out to him a couple of times, but he's a busy guy.

KING: But he's optimistic. He thinks he's going to walk.

EARECKSON TADA: That may very well happen using incredible therapies that are happening using adult stem cell research. It is absolutely amazing what is happen.

Dr. Carlos Lima in Lisbon, Portugal has helped restore bladder and muscle control to people with paralysis -- it is using stem cells from their own nasal tissue.

KING: Everyone says it will be faster if embryonic is also used. Nancy Reagan is going to campaign strongly for that.

EARECKSON TADA: I heard that.

KING: Are you against that.

EARECKSON TADA: I am against that, Larry.

KING: Why.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, for two reasons. It's kind of a two prong fork here. Number one is a person with a disability, research dollars are few, they are scares, they are precious. And because they are scares, I want to see that money channeled into therapies which have the most promise, which are the most effective. Right now, no stem cell derived from a human embryo is even in clinical trial in a human and even the trials in animals are fraught with problems, there's tissue malformation, there's tissue rejection. There's...

KING: That happens in all beginnings, of all studies.

EARECKSON TADA: That's true, but right now, with their own stem cells, whether dental pulp or nasal tissue, bone marrow tissue, incredible therapies are happening.

KING: But who's being harmed. Someone said the other day, what's an argument against embryonic cell research, that they haven't tried it yet.

That's not an argument. What's an argument -- is there a moral argument.

EARECKSON TADA: One argument is, of course, there is -- there is -- it's abhorrent to take human life. Larry, I'm a person with a disability. I am exposed and vulnerable as a quadriplegic and I believe that people like me, the elderly, the frail, the unborn, our lives are in jeopardy in a society which begins to dismantle the safe guards around human life. If we begin taking human life, no matter how small, whether or not a human embryo has a soul, and I happen to believe it does, is not the point, it's a not a goat embryo, it's not a rat, it's not a chicken embryo, it's a human.

KING: Would you debate Chris Reeve.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, yes, I'd be happy to.

KING: He favors it, as you know, strongly.

EARECKSON TADA: I know he does. You know, I think, Christopher Reeve's best chances and people that we serve at Joni and Friends, thousands of disabled people and their families, our best chances, my best chance as a person with a spinal cord injury to get a viable cure is through pouring all the effort and all the attention in developing therapies using adult stem cells.

KING: Do you think you will walk.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I'm what they call chronically disabled.

KING: Meaning.

EARECKSON TADA: I've been in this wheelchair for 37 years, my bones are so porous, you can't see it, but I've got a cast on this leg, I broke my leg about a month ago. And my doctor said, you've got the bones of an 82-year-old, and that's pretty frightening.

KING: How did you break it.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, on the Los Angeles Freeway, a car cuts in front of us and stops suddenly.

KING: You have a car.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I don't, but my husband...

KING: You can't drive, right.

EARECKSON TADA: No, I do drive. It doesn't have a steering wheel.

KING: What is it like?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, it's really strange. It's a big van. I wheel up into the driver alcove, my hand sits down onto what looks like a joystick look of an airplane. And then with a mouse stick, I can secure a handcuff and then I push forward to accelerate, pull back to brake and swing my arm right or left to turn right or left. Only in California.

KING: You're reflexes are the same.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, it's torqued very sensitively, so that all it takes is like a quarter of pound pressure to brake.

KING: Do you drive alone.

EARECKSON TADA: Yes, I drive alone. I live inside of 50 on the San Diego Freeway. And I'm only kidding, in more states than just in California would they let somebody like me on a freeway.

KING: What kind of office you do have.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, we're out in Agora Hills, Southern California. It's a considerable suite of offices, and we have a team of people who I work alongside who run not only retreats for families affected by disability. And we provide financial scholarships, five days of wheelchair square dancing, wheelchair hiking, arts and crafts and Bible study, and times of prayer, it's great time for the family. Plus, this is the fun part, we collect used wheelchairs across the United States, ship them to one of 10 prisons, where inmates volunteer to shine up and shape up these wheelchairs and make them look and like (UNINTELLIGIBLE) show room new. And then we take teams of Christian physical therapists who travel with us to Poland, Ukraine, Albania, China, my husband and I were in Cuba and Peru recently. And we properly fit each child with a disability to that wheelchair.

KING: All under Joni and Friends.

EARECKSON TADA: That's correct.

KING: We'll be right back with more of Joni Eareckson Tada. Don't go away.


EARECKSON TADA: I'm grateful for even this small bit of independence. If my injury were a fraction lower on my spinal cord, I wouldn't have the strength to drive. But that I have this amount of strength and that the engineers could torque this accelerating and braking mechanism to match the sensitivities of my muscle strength, wow, that's awesome. That's wonderful. I'm grateful.




TADA: I want to make sure everyone knows how proud and blessed I am to have a wife like Joni. She is the neatest lady. I wish people could get a chance to know her on a personal basis. She has a sensitive heart to others. She reaches out. She's tender. She's compassionate. And she's always looking out for the other person.


KING: How did you meet your husband?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, let's see. I was in my early 30s sitting in church one Sunday morning. We had a visiting pastor.

KING: You go to church every Sunday.

EARICKSON TADA: Yes. Yeah. And anyway, it was a visiting pastor, and I just wasn't getting this sermon. It just really wasn't grabbing me. But it was the Lord's day, and I didn't want to let my mind wander, and so I started praying for the back of this guy's head who was sitting about five pews in front of me.

KING: Praying to the head?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, the back of the head. I didn't see his face, I didn't know if he was wearing a wedding ring, I didn't know if he was good looking, didn't know his name. He was a visitor, I guess. I don't know. I just felt compelled to pray for him, prayed for his friends, prayed about his work, prayed about his family, all kinds of stuff.

Three months later, we were introduced through mutual friends. And when I learned his name was Ken Tada, first thing I said to him was, turn around and let me see the back of your head. It was the same guy.

KING: What made you think it was him?

EARICKSON TADA: I recognized his hair. I saw the side of his face. And when he learned that I had prayed for the back of his head, he was very impressed, and...

KING: Did he ask you out?

EARICKSON TADA: He did. And I was scared to death. I hadn't dated anybody in 10 years.

KING: Since high school? Or had you dated since others?

EARICKSON TADA: No, I really hadn't dated much. And I didn't know what to do. I told him that he was going to have to learn how to lift me in and out of my wheelchair and into his car, and cut up my food at the restaurant. And back then ramps weren't always at restaurants, so it was pretty tough for him to hike me up steps to a restaurant. And...

KING: Did you like him right away?

EARICKSON TADA: Oh, yes. Very much. He was honest. I liked his sense of humor. And he loved Jesus Christ like I had.

KING: But you also knew and he knew that you would not have an intimate physical life.

EARICKSON TADA: Well, that really wasn't a point of discussion while we were dating. I mean, we just had grand fun.

KING: But that was coming. I mean, you are a bright person, he's bright.

EARICKSON TADA: Eventually when he asked me to marry him, we had a lot of questions, like how was this going to work? And in fact, we even had people who said, you know, why don't you just two go off for a weekend and just, you know, just try it? And I thought, number one, that's wrong. I mean, the Bible says we should not engage in sex before marriage, and so I didn't want to disobey God. And number two, I thought that would be like, well, love with strings attached.

And so we went into this marriage with a lot of unanswered questions. And our honeymoon was a little bit like handicap awareness week. But it's...

KING: Is there intimate -- you can have intimacy?

EARICKSON TADA: Oh, sure. We're just like any other couple.

KING: Except you don't have feeling, right, below the neck?

EARICKSON TADA: But there is more to romance than what happens below the neck, Larry.

KING: OK, I'm just saying. Everyone would be thinking that.

EARICKSON TADA: Right. And I think that the joy and the commitment and the love and the affection and the respect and the honor and the duty and the devotion that flows between my husband and me, is, I think, more precious and perhaps it is more unique in this society than maybe many marriages, I don't know.

KING: He must love you a lot.

EARICKSON TADA: Well, he's a good guy.

KING: He's your caretaker, too, right?

EARICKSON TADA: No, I have about, oh, six or seven women who on any different morning, any given morning will get me up.

KING: Is he involved with Joni and Friends, too?

EARICKSON TADA: Yes, we travel a great deal together to these family retreats I spoke to you about, and also to countries where our teams deliver wheelchairs. And people are always curious about our relationship.

KING: How did the radio show start?

EARICKSON TADA: Well, I was in bed for many months, and a good friend of Pastor John MacArthur, whom you've had on this program before...

KING: Know him well.

EARICKSON TADA: ... Al Sanders (ph) had come up to visit me, and he produces the programs that Pastor MacArthur records. And so he was just visiting me at my bedside, and he was asking what I had been learning, how was I keeping my spirits up, being in bed, lying face, you know, just face up on the mattress there for months on end.

And so I began telling him what I had been learning. And he said, you know, that is pretty encouraging. You ought to put that on a radio transcript, and our team will be happy to produce it.

KING: How often are you on?

EARICKSON TADA: Five days a week, about 850 inspirational radio outlets.

KING: How long a show is it?

EARICKSON TADA: Just five minutes.

KING: Oh, you do inspirational messages every day?

EARICKSON TADA: Right. Yes. And also disability awareness information. I've done programs about the Fair Housing Amendment Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act, or any other points of information that might be helpful to disabled people.

KING: And we'll talk about that when we get back. Don't go away.


EARICKSON TADA: Well, I haven't seen one bitter disabled people here yet, and I have seen scores of people with disabilities, many, many people with disabilities. No one's bitter, no one's angry at a drunk driver, no one's angry at their mother for having gotten them born, no one's angry that they were disabled in an injury or an illness or a disease. They're happy, happy people. It's given me a renewed confidence that there's no need for me to ever, ever complain.



KING: We're back with Joni Eareckson Tada, who was appointed by then President Reagan to the 15-member council instrumental in the design of the American with Disabilities Act.

You were there it was -- the day it was signed, right?

EARECKSON TADA: Oh, it was a wonderful day. I was on the White House lawn and watched President Bush sign the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. It was a grand day for disabled people.

And I'll never forget, our executive director at that time, Paul Hearne -- a man with brittle bone disease who was in a wheelchair -- he welcomed us all back to the hotel for a brief reception.

And I'll never forget what he said. This bill had just become law, and he had helped champion it. And he said, "You know, this law will mean that we'll have more mechanical lifts on buses. It'll mean that there'll be more open doors of opportunity for people to be employed. It'll mean that there'll be better access in restaurants and public accommodations."

And then he paused for a moment, looking at his drink and kind of fingering the lip of it, and he said, "But that's not going to change the heart of the bus driver. It's not going to change the heart of the employer or the maitre'd of the restaurant." And then, he lifted his drink and said, "Here's to changed hearts."

And when he said that, it struck me that state proclamations and declarations and even something like the Americans with Disabilities Act is not necessarily going to jerk people's attitudes here in America right side up.

KING: But at least you can get on a bus and at least there's a ramp.

EARECKSON TADA: At least there is a ramp. Now, sometimes the bus driver has been known to pass you by.

KING: What do you say, Joni, to people who have just become disabled and are feeling what you felt that day when you were 17? What do you say to them when, at this point, God may not work?

EARECKSON TADA: I think the best thing to do is what Job's friends did with him -- perhaps it was the only good thing Job's friends did with him -- they sat with him and didn't say a word. Just sat with him, just -- they were with him.

KING: You're saying, friends of disabled, be there.


KING: And to the disabled -- what?

EARECKSON TADA: I think there's a time to weep, a time to grieve. I think when you're...

KING: That's OK.

EARECKSON TADA: Oh, my goodness, when you're a mother and you just give birth to a child with spina bifida and -- or Down's Syndrome or cerebral palsy, there's a bit of a shock you're going to have to go through, a bit of an adjustment curve.

Many of your hopes are going to have to be detoured. And it's not easy. But there is a -- there is a strength in sharing burdens with one another. So, if people are hurting, be there with them, comfort, console, have the Kleenex tissue, listen, be available, assist, help, encourage. That's what we try to do with Joni & Friends all the time.

KING: Ever doubt your faith?

EARECKSON TADA: I have questioned God. I have wondered why.

KING: When you see a 9/11?

EARECKSON TADA: Yes. That's a tragedy, to be sure. And I look at that and I think: What has God done here? And when I look back at 9/11 -- and I don't know all -- who am I? I don't know reasons why.

If God told us the reasons why anyway, it would be like probably pouring million gallon truths into our one-ounce brains. We couldn't contain it all. But when I look at national tragedies or even personal tragedies, sometimes I think these things are like God's way of, like, wake-up calls, like yellow lights blinking, like red flags waving.

Like what are you doing with your life? Where are you going? Do you not know that this parade of life as you enjoy it is not going to last forever? And what will you do when you face the other side of your tombstone?

And it's the -- I think suffering is God's way of sometimes waking us up out of our spiritual slumber with an ice-cold splash in the face and getting us seriously to consider his claims, who he is and where we're going.

KING: How do people help Joni and Friends?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, we got lots of volunteers, and we need more.

KING: Have a Web site?


KING: Which is?

EARECKSON TADA: It's -- And people can find out about our programs and services for people with disabilities.

KING: Are you privately funded?

EARECKSON TADA: Private donations, foundations, we've got great corporate partnerships with some great groups of people who transport our wheelchairs. FedEx helps us. United Airlines helps us. Maersk Sealand ships our wheelchairs.

KING: Have they made a lot of improvements in the chairs?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, that's the thing. I mean, in America, when we collect some of these wheelchairs, these little pediatric wheelchairs, I mean, these are customized jobs with the adjustables, detachable desk, arms swing away, foot pedals. And these chairs can cost families in America up to 12, 13, 14, $15,000. A chair like that is prohibitive for a child in Peru or Cuba or Mexico.

KING: Or east central L.A.

EARECKSON TADA: Right, right. Exactly. And -- which is why often when there are needs for wheelchairs here in America, we'll direct people to large organizations like Easter Seals or Crippled Children Society.

But for Joni and Friends, Wheels for the World is not just about giving someone a wheelchair, it's about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. It's about giving a bible. It's about doing disability ministry training in churches. It's about changing the values in a community.

I mean, we've been in Africa where some people have thought cerebral palsy was a leftover curse from a witch doctor.

KING: You went to Cuba, too?


KING: We'll be right back with our remaining moments with the extraordinary Joni Eareckson Tada. And again, if you want more information, want to help, it's Joni is J-O-N-I, and we'll be right back.


EARECKSON TADA: You must be so thrilled that after carrying your daughter around for 18 years, she's going to get her first wheelchair.

That's a great smile. And Jill is working hard to make your wheelchair fit just right.

Well, I will pray for you and that your heart will continue to be happy in this first new chair of yours.




EARECKSON TADA: Before my accident, I rode horseback. And whenever they're doing a lesson, I like to stop here and just watch. And I am encouraged to know one day I'll ride again. And that's not a pie-in-the-sky promise; that's a rock-of-Gibraltar solid reality that one day I'll ride again.

So, I come here and watch, just to make certain I don't forget how to ride.


KING: We have failed to mention that Joni Eareckson Tada has a book out called "The God I Love," right?


KING: It's book number what.

EARECKSON TADA: Somewhere like 30 or something. I don't know, 31.

KING: And that's out now?

EARECKSON TADA: Right, it's a memoir of my journey of faith. Some people might look at this wheelchair and think that I would have titled the book "The God I Hate." But I want to explain to people that when you go through the toughest of times, it -- a wheelchair can be your passport to joy, and to peace in such a way I would have never would have dreamed possible when I was on my feet. I would really rather be in this chair knowing him, than on my feet without him. And I think the last line in the book sums it up. There are more important things in life than walking.

KING: You -- you have a mutual friend, Billy Graham, right?

EARECKSON TADA: Yes, we do. He broke his hip the same week, I broke my leg. And I wrote him, and we had gone up to his home, him and Ruth, to sing hymns. Crack open the Hymnal, talk about the hymns that she used to sing as a little girl in China, and we sang hymns that day. And I wrote him to tell him about my broken bone, and I tried to think, find all hymns in the Hymnal that have to do with feet.

KING: I'm also told you have unusual things in you office, your couch is unusual.

EARECKSON TADA: My couch is unusual?

KING: Someone told me that you have unusual...

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I have a lay down a lot, I experience a lot of pain and so I've got a fold out couch -- if I have to lie down during the day to make an adjustment or whatever I'm able to do so?

KING: Someone has to lift you out, though, right?

EARECKSON TADA: Yes. So, I have to keep my weight down, Larry. No french fries for me if people are going to have to lift me.

KING: Does it annoy you that you're always dependent on others?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, you know, I have an interesting perspective on depending on others. I think it gives people chance to serve. And I'm not so much big on independence, as I am on interdependence. I'm not talking about co-dependency, I'm talking about giving people the opportunity to practicing love with it's sleeves rolled up. And my life is pretty much the context to which people can assist me. I mean, it gives me such joy to be wheeling up to a door at a local mall that doesn't have one of those automatic opener, and say, pardon me, could you open that up for me. And then some gentle likes opening up, say, you're a good boy scout, thank you, sir. And I think that builds bridges between people with disabilities and able-bodied.

KING: What about painting?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, painting is the one thing I do, that is just me. It's me and easels, and the pencils. And as long as I don't drool too much over the canvas, the colors come out pretty good. And it's a chance to express all that I've got inside, that I sometimes keep hidden. And I think that's why I paint big broad, wide open landscapes.

KING: I had a painter tell me once, that the joy he got so much was knowing that he's in people's homes.

EARECKSON TADA: Yes. That's kind of a good perspective. In fact, Larry, I've got a painting for you after the show.

KING: The way that people look at him and they say look at me everyday. TI's so personal isn't it? I mean, nothings more personal than a painting.

EARECKSON TADA: Yes, it is. And I think that my paintings perhaps can encourage people. I'm not making a big deal about my mouth art. Really, I'm not asking for pity, no way. But I do think, that if someone would look at one of my paintings and they might think to themselves, wow, if she can do that, then perhaps God will give me the strength to rise above my circumstances, too. And that's pretty neat that I get a chance to share that message.

KING: Do you call it mouth art?

EARECKSON TADA: I don't know what I call it.

KING: It's a good term.

EARECKSON TADA: It sounds like I paint with my lips or something. I don't want to -- But just painting holding the brushes between my teeth. But Larry, don't get me wrong, there are strokes and there brush strokes and -- I can not -- mouths were not meant to hold pencils or brushes, the hand was meant to hold a pen or brush. And I can't wait to Heaven, and I look forward to Heaven so much, because not only will I paint murals, but I'll have back use of my hands, and I really will jump up, dance, kick, aerobics. And I hope I can take this wheelchair to Heaven with me. I know, if you had Pastor John MacArthur here, he'd say that's not biblically correct. And it's not. But if I could, I would take it with me and I would be standing next to my savior Jesus Christ, and I would say, "Lord, do you see this wheelchair? Well, before you send it to hell, I want to tell you something about it. You were right, when you said, in this world we would have trouble. And there's a lot of trouble being a quadriplegic, but you know what, the weaker I was in that thing, the harder I leaned on you and the harder I leaned on you, the stronger I discovered you to be. Thank you for the bruising of a blessing it was, this severe mercy. Thank you.

KING: You believe you're going somewhere, then?

EARECKSON TADA: Oh my, goodness, yes.

KING: And you will be in excellent physical form.

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I don't know what glorified bodies are like. I know that, when Jesus Christ rose from the grave 3 days after his crucifixion, which he -- the apple of God's eye turn brown with the rot of our sin, when he rose from that grave, he had a body that was perfectly fit not only for an earthly environment, but a heavenly environment.

KING: Did you see "The Passion"? EARECKSON TADA: Yes.

KING: And?

EARECKSON TADA: Well, I'll tell you, the next weekend when I took communion at my church, and I let that bread just sit on my tongue for a long moment. It gave a newer and deeper appreciation for Christ's broken body for me. And when I think of what happens on the cross, the fact that -- well that -- may I quickly explain?

KING: Less than a minute.

EARECKSON TADA: Less than a minute. God hates sin and he must punish sin, but he's a just God. And so, being just he sends his son Jesus Christ to the cross in our place, and Jesus pays the penalty for our sin. And God's got no more anger left for you or me if we would but believe. All he's got left is love, and forgiveness, and mercy upon mercy, and grace upon grace, that's the good news.

KING: And gave you courage.

EARECKSON TADA: I'm grateful for that. Thank you, Larry.

KING: Joni Eareckson Tada. Again if you want more information, I'll be back in a minute. Don't go away.


KING: Hope you enjoyed tonight's edition of LARRY KING LIVE, and found it as inspiring as I did. NEWSNIGHT with Aaron Brown is next. See you tomorrow night.


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