John ‘Jack’ Jonas Jr. was a pioneer in helping people with disabilities

02/02/2014 7:11 AM

02/02/2014 7:12 AM

As an audiologist and speech pathologist working with disabled children, John “Jack” Jonas Jr. noticed that job opportunities for his patients were nearly nonexistent once they reached adulthood.

Convinced that productivity spurred dignity, self-esteem and independence, he strove for more than 60 years to change that course.

“He was a pioneer – ahead of his time – in terms of helping folks (with disabilities), making sure they were accepted and part of the mainstream,” said Dave Jones, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas, “and making sure they had the same opportunities as everybody else.”

Mr. Jonas, lifelong advocate and forward thinker for people with disabilities, founder of Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation of Kansas and Center Industries Corporation, and former executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas, died at his Wichita home Jan. 29 after a battle with cancer. He was 82.

Prompted by the shortcomings he discovered while working with the children who attended the Institute of Logopedics – predecessor to Heartspring – Mr. Jonas spent his professional life devising ways for people with disabilities to pursue careers in the modern-day workplace, his friends and colleagues say.

Born in St. Paul, Minn., he served as executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas before founding the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation of Kansas in 1972.

With the support of then-Kansas House of Representatives Minority Leader Richard “Pete” Loux, Mr. Jonas persuaded legislators to pass the Kansas Special Education Mandate – a move that predated the federal version of the law by three years.

Later, he worked alongside legislators Bob Dole, Nancy Kassebaum, Dan Glickman and others, garnering bipartisan support to further employment equality for the disabled.

“He was one of the most compassionate and caring men I ever met,” Jones said. “He tried really hard to assure that folks with disabilities had the opportunity to reach their full potential – whatever that was.”

“He was at the forefront,” predating the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Patrick Terick, governmental activities director for the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation and Mr. Jonas’ longtime friend.

“He saw the importance of transition before transition became popular.”

Furthering his contention that education, employment and independent housing were rights due all people, Mr. Jonas brought Center Industries Corporation to Wichita in 1975. The company, modeled after an Australian-based firm that used work site modifications to gainfully employ disabled people, gave local disabled workers wages and fringe benefits that matched those of their able-bodied counterparts.

“Some of the job modifications were very elaborate,” Jones said. “But they allowed people with severe disabilities to work.”

Twelve employees took on CIC’s first task: manufacturing license plates for the state of Kansas.

Today, the company’s work includes metal fabrication, CNC machining, assembly and printing.

Of its 250-plus employees, more than three-quarters are disabled.

The company “really gave dignity for the person with disabilities to become employed,” Terick said. Mr. Jonas served as CIC’s chief executive until his retirement in 2000.

His work proves “that people with disabilities can work in a real work setting if given the opportunity to,” Terick said, “and not being held to an entry-level job, but they can advance to higher aspirations.”

Four years after bringing CIC to Wichita, Mr. Jonas continued his mission by founding The Timbers, a 100-unit independent living apartment complex for the elderly and people with disabilities. It was the first U.S. Housing and Urban Development property of its kind, according to a Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation news release announcing Mr. Jonas’ death.

Author David Rundle, who has cerebral palsy, met Mr. Jonas at the housing complex.

“He helped my mother ensure that I got an education,” Rundle wrote in the release. “Moving into The Timbers allowed me to continue learning as I moved to Wichita for college.

“Jack’s approach to independence showed my generation the way.”

During his more than 60-year career, Mr. Jonas also founded the Jaycees Cerebral Palsy Ranch summer camp, the National Rehabilitation Engineering Institute of Productivity in 1985, and the Midwest Cancer Foundation after his wife, Mary Eileen Murphy, died from breast cancer in 1989.

He also wrote the original Mentor-Protege language – drafted into federal law in 1991 – which gives small businesses a better chance to compete for government contracts. His intent, colleagues say, was to secure a procurement advantage for companies like CIC that employed disabled people.

Mr. Jonas earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and education (1954) and a master’s degree in speech pathology and audiology (1967) from Wichita University, and served two years in the U.S. Air Force. He was discharged as a captain in 1956.

He is survived by his wife, Beverly; a twin brother; four sons; two stepchildren; and 19 grandchildren.

Funeral services are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday at Church of the Magdalen, 12626 E. 21st St. in Wichita. A rosary will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions in Mr. Jonas’ name may be made to: The Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation of Kansas, 5111 E. 21st St., Wichita, KS 67208.

Written tributes may be shared online at www.dlwichita.com.

“Jack Jonas saw people with disabilities as his peers,” Rundle wrote. “He lived his work and his faith, and he inspires me to this day.”

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