Deciding to Marry a Quadriplegic: Couple Tells Love Story

Disability, depression, cancer challenged, strengthened a 31-year marriage.

ByABC News
May 29, 2013, 5:10 PM

May 30, 2013— -- Ken Tada married Joni Eareckson in 1982 for better, for worse and for all the things that were uniquely her -- including the fact that she was a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.

The couple from Agoura Hill, Calif., now married 31 years, laughs that he had to change her leg bag on their first date at the movies, emptying the urine outside behind a tree.

"What goes in has to come out," said Ken Tada, 66 and a retired high school history teacher. "This part of the date had not been covered."

"People wondered: Here is an able bodied man and disabled woman. What is the attraction, why did they fall in love?" he said. "Those who know her know she has a beautiful heart and is beautiful on the outside. I fell in love with her."

Joni Eareckson Tada, now 63, was a successful disability rights activist, a painter and author of several books. She has been paralyzed since she was 17 and has no movement from her shoulders down, including the use of her hands.

"I was nervous when I met him," she said. "I had lived enough years as a single girl. I was traveling a great deal and enjoyed my freedom. No one had ever asked me out on a date."

Today, the couple chronicles their marital journey, including her battle with breast cancer and his with depression, in a memoir, "Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story."

Only the details of her disability are unique to the Tadas. Theirs is a universal story about the power of faith and communication to strengthen any marriage.

The couple met at a local church during a "boring" sermon. As he tells it, she was sitting behind him, "praying through the back of my head."

"Through a series of coincidences, we kept running into each other and it sparked interesting conversations," he said. "I asked her out for a date."

At the time, he was working as a teacher and coach at a technical school.

"The kids couldn't figure out why I was working out so hard," he said. "But if I took her out, I had to do it myself, lift her in and out of the chair -- like curling 180 pounds." [Though, she hardly weighs that much, he added.]

She had been in a wheelchair since she broke her neck in a diving accident in Maryland when she was 17.

"I hit the bottom and crushed my spinal column," she said. "Years ago, rehab was not as refined as it is now. There was a lot of trial and error, but I am grateful I survived."

During rehabilitation, she learned to type and paint with a brush between her teeth.

"I am amazed what she can do," said her husband. "I thought talent came in the hands."

She began entering her art in local festivals and was interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1974. A publisher who saw her on the "Today Show" asked if she would write a book.

"I said, 'You bet,' and my writing burgeoned from there," she said.

That first book, "Joni," sold more than 4 million copies and was translated into 50 languages. That spawned her evangelical ministry to help others, Joni and Friends.

"I have been blessed with so much good health and a remarkable husband and opportunity to travel, that I want to pass the blessings on to the many millions of people with disabilities -- more than 1 billion in the world.," she said.

The couple dated for less than year before getting engaged.

"I was blown away with this good-looking guy who was strong and handsome and shared the same values and convictions as I," she said. "I readily said yes."