On July 30, 1967, Joni Eareckson’s life changed forever, leading to her greatest blessings and greatest sufferings. She misjudged the shallowness of the water in the Chesapeake Bay, dove in, and was paralyzed. She was 18 years old. In the over fifty years since, Joni has become a driving force to accelerate Christian ministry in the disability community.
In 1976, her eponymous autobiography became an international best-seller. In 1979, she founded Joni and Friends, which has engaged in several ventures to help the disability community and raise awareness for disability rights within the religious and political spheres.
Their latest project is a partnership with New Growth Press for a small group series called The Gospel in Hard Times and a children’s book titled God Made Me Unique. I recently had a chance to talk with Chonda Ralston, a Joni and Friends team member who wrote the text of the book. Our conversation covers not just the book, but also how churches can—and need—to do better when it comes to providing a welcoming and inviting place to the disability community.
Josh Olds: This book centers around a young girl joining a new Sunday School class and the teacher preparing the students for the fact that this girl has special needs. A lot of times adults take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to special needs. They shut their kids’ questions down. They don’t explain why this person seems different. What’s the importance in actually talking to kids about special needs?
Chonda Ralston: I think that is a lot of times the natural reaction of parents because, you know, it comes from a good place, right? We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and say “Don’t stare,” or have those kinds of responses. But what we talked about in the book is that—and what Joni specifically talks about in her introductory letter—this is a natural curiosity, that’s a natural God-given reflection of their innocence. And, and we want to help them to understand that it’s okay to ask questions.
Josh Olds: Disability ministry can be difficult for churches specifically. A lot of times churches want to help, but aren’t educated on the best means to do so.
Chonda Ralston: The key word is “with.” Yes, it’s disability ministry to—to the families and the individuals—but it’s also with. They have so much to offer. And Scripture makes it very clear that, you know, the body is missing out, when we’re not trying to tap into the ways that they too can serve and give back.
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The Book | God Made Me Unique
God Made Me Unique helps parents and caregivers teach children that God creates every person in the image of God and each individual has tremendous value, regardless of his or her appearance or abilities. The story is set in a classroom where a new student is introduced who has a disability and his classmates learn to ask questions and gain an understanding about their new friend. This book will help eliminate fear and misconceptions about those who have special needs and emphasizes that every person deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. The back of the book has additional information and resources to equip parents to talk with their children about this important subject.
The Author | Chonda Ralston
Chonda Ralston has been with Joni and Friends for over ten years, serving as a curriculum coordinator, manager of publishing and ministry resources, and writer. She wrote the text of God Made Me Unique: Helping Children See Value in Every Person.
The Author | Joni Eareckson Tada
Joni Eareckson Tada is one of the world’s leading international advocates for people affected by disability. A diving accident in 1967 left her, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After two years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a fresh determination to help others in similar situations. She founded Joni and Friends in 1979, which quickly grew to provide Christ-centered programs to special needs families, churches, and communities. Joni survived stage III breast cancer in 2010, and still keeps a very active ministry schedule.
Joni has written over 50 books, including her best-selling autobiography, Joni, which was made into a feature film. Her new award-winning daily devotional, A Spectacle of Glory, contains fresh biblical insights from her battle with cancer and chronic pain. Joni also served as General Editor of the Beyond Suffering Bible, a special edition published by Tyndale for people who suffer chronic conditions and their caregivers. She and her husband Ken were married in 1982 and reside in California.