For two weeks, Joni Eareckson Tada was living a Hollywood fairytale. The title song she sang for the film, Alone Yet not Alone, had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The fact that a song from a little seen Christian film garnered the Academy's attention was surprising. That song has since been disqualified for an Oscar because of alleged lobbying violations on the part of the composer who was a former Academy Governor.
The real story, however, remains Joni herself. She was the most unlikely person to have been chosen to sing in the first place, because Joni is a quadriplegic. This once active woman who was an athlete and rode horses competitively, broke her neck at age 17 in a diving accident. Rather than ending her dreams and ambitions, her injuries only seemed to inspire and demand even grander ones.
That accident happened 37 years ago. I met Joni to interview her for a well deserved profile on the syndicated television show Inside Edition (following the Oscar nomination announcement but prior to the controversy). I didn't expect this now 64 year old woman to look quite so young. Her blonde hair is cut in a pixie-style bob and her light blue eyes, which seem to be constantly smiling (model Tyra Banks coined the term "smizing"), and her flawless skin, make her easily appear twenty years younger. She founded and runs Joni and Friends, a ministry and support network for the disabled which spans the world. Her organization donates wheelchairs to patients who otherwise could never afford them. "This year we are giving our 100,000th wheelchair," she said, not with pride but with gratitude.
Joni has written 40 books, most, not surprisingly, are inspirational. She is also an avid painter. Joni sketches, holding a pencil with her teeth and paints using a brush in the same manner. Many of her creations are landscapes but she draws horses as well because, even though she has long been unable to ride herself, she still has a love of horses. You may have noticed I did not include singing on her impressive resume because Joni is not known as a professional singer. Following a speech at a church during which she sang several hymns, the producer for this film, who happened to be there, asked Joni her to put her voice on the title song. Joni did not write Alone Yet Not Alone but she says the song is like her anthem. "I am alone, sitting in a stand-up world, but I am not alone thanks to my faith, and Ken." Ken is her husband of thirty-one years. She glances toward him lovingly as she says Ken's name and I can see the feeling is mutual. Joni's paralysis should, by all accounts, have rendered Joni unable to sing at all because she has no control of the muscles in her lower chest. Ken assists her in hitting the high notes by pushing on her diaphragm at just the right moment, enabling her lungs to produce enough force to belt them out.
The nomination, which is a songwriters award rather than a performer's, was not Joni's to earn, nor to lose. Still, I am sad that Joni will not be attending the Oscars, not for the accolades associated with a nomination, but because she will not meet her celebrity crush, Tom Hanks. Joni is a hero who does not need an Oscar to prove it. Still, Mr. Hanks, if you read this; I know a devoted female fan who would be thrilled to get an autographed picture.