Minnesotans with disabilities are paying tribute to two community members who dedicated themselves to advocacy and improving the lives of others. John Schatzlein and Jennifer Mundl died in June and will be greatly missed by their families, friends and fellow self-advocates. Both were also longtime contributors to Access Press.
Schatzlein is remembered for his decades of advocacy, his expertise on access and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues and his willingness to reach out to others with spinal cord injuries. He was 70 and lived in Bloomington.
Mundl is remembered as someone whose vast knowledge about assistive technology and matter-of-fact approach to problem-solving helped countless people improve their lives. Mundl was 53 and lived in Arden Hills.
Schatzlein made a difference
“We really need to recognize that we’re all kind of on a journey. Sometimes you’re going to have an early traumatic disabling condition—like I was 14 and fell out of a tree—or you end up with cancer or a friend of mine has early Alzheimer’s in his 50s. All of it is a part of life’s progression. We have to be able to do what we can to stay healthy. And you have to be strong enough and hopefully have a support system enough to go from day to day and maximize what you can do.” – John Schatzlein
“He was a true pioneer in the rights for people with disabilities here in Minnesota. One of the greatest,” said friend and fellow activist Jeff Bangsberg.
Schatzlein’s life was changed at age 14, when he fell out of a large cottonwood tree during a visit to a family farm. He sustained a spinal cord injury and became a paraplegic. That led to life of activism on local, state and federal disability rights issues.
Schatzlein graduated from what is now Hill-Murray High School. He went on to Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall. Southwest was touted as a college intended to accommodate students with disabilities when it opened in 1967.
Schatzlein, the first student body president at Southwest, worked with fellow students and school administrators to make improvements and to eliminate barriers including heavy doors, too-low sinks, too-high telephones and other issues. They also worked to help the school college create a broad-based program of disability services and supports.
One focus at the school was wheelchair sports, which Schatzlein enjoyed. He loved sports including wheelchair basketball and sled hockey, and helped many others get involved in those sports. In the book Damn Bunch of Cripples: My Politically Incorrect Education in Disability Awareness, author Lew Shaver describes his introduction to wheelchair sports thanks to Schatzlein.
That interest in sports continued with a focus on making facilities accessible. “Within the past ten years, I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside of John addressing accessibility at many of the public stadiums,” said Bangsberg. “One of those achievements was notably the Target Field which received national recognition for its accessible design.
“John’s passion to make the world a better place for people with disabilities was always part of his mission in life,” said Bangsberg. He remembers his friend as someone who wasn’t afraid to call out people who weren’t working in the best interests of those with disabilities.
“I cannot remember the first time I met John, but I do remember his presence,” Bangsberg said. “John was always very talkative and wanted to help in any way he could.”
He recalled their work together in the early 1980s, before the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act. “He helped Margot Imdieke and me put by-laws together for the then Consumer Advisory Council (which is now the State Rehabilitation Council) at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) before the name changed to Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS). He was in front of issues before laws were enacted to address these issues.”
“We also worked on co-location with the Minnesota Workforce Centers which was controversial in those days.”
His professional life took him to the University of Minnesota, Sister Kenny Institute and Catholic Charities. He also worked as a consultant. Much of his work centered on disability advocacy. He wrote for Access Press, New Mobility and other publications.
Schatzlein served on many state, regional and local advisory committees centered on disability, access and transportation issues. He was a strong and constant presence at the state capitol during legislative sessions.
Schatzlein was also very involved in disability rights and ADA issues in his hometown of Bloomington. He appeared in videos for the city, educating others about access and the ADA. In videos he talked about the days before curb cuts, automatic door openers and other accommodations, recalling how people in wheelchairs had to do wheelies and other maneuvers to get wheelchairs onto a sidewalk. Otherwise, he and others traveled in the street.
He enjoyed his family and friends, and using an array of tools in a cluttered garage workshop. He was a man of strong faith. He also had an irreverent and humorous side.
Longtime friend John Tschida recalled that Schatzlein was always one of the first to reach out to others who had sustained spinal cord injuries, including Tschida himself. Tschida remembers Schatzlein as a man of great faith, and recalled this quote of his:
“Take the time to really look around to see, hear, smell, and feel the greatness of life around us. At the same time, see the realness of the less-than-desirable elements. Choose to reenergize yourself. Choose to make a difference in the community where you live. Choose to assist others in their efforts to change the wrongs. We can only control our own choices. Choose to care.”
Mundl was assistive tech guru
“I have always looked beyond a disability and focused on what a person can do. Everyone is unique and everyone is a gift. Through creativity and knowledge, we can all impact the world today.” – Jennifer Mundl
Mundl was 17 when a 1982 gymnastics accident resulted in a severe spinal cord injury. She was paralyzed from the neck down and was left a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic.
After a lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation, Mundl persevered to continue her education. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
She went on to help develop the assistive technology program at Courage Center, now Courage Kenny, starting the program in 1991 and becoming the lead assistive technology specialist.
She was a contributor to Access Press, writing on assistive technology issues. She enjoyed sharing news of new devices with others. She also very much enjoyed watching people, especially children, try out new devices. She was a keen observer of what worked and what didn’t.
Nancy Huizenga, director of Courage Kenny Community Services, quoted Mundl. “It is about what we do with our life and how we react to roadblocks in front of us.”
“She expertly navigated the roadblocks in front of her and embraced the roadblocks experienced by the individuals she served and colleagues she supported,” Huizenga said. “As the inspirational founder and lead staff of the assistive technology services at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, she shared her tremendous knowledge, expertise and practical experience with all of us. She demonstrated her commitment to the disability community and the assistive technology field in countless ways. Her contributions live on throughout the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute and the community.”
Tschida worked with Mundl at Courage Center. “Jen helped countless people realize how technology could make them more independent. She was a great teacher and listener,” he said. “At Courage Center it wasn’t the high or low-tech equipment that made our AT lab exceptional. It was Jen.”
Mundl was often honored for her work. She was the 2011 recipient of the Shining Star of Perseverance Award, given by Assurant Employee Benefits. Mundl earned the distinction because of the fortitude and determination she demonstrated since her 1982 accident.
At the time she was honored, Mundl said, “There are no disabilities, but rather varying abilities. I have always looked beyond a disability and focused on what a person can do. Everyone is unique and everyone is a gift.”
In late 2018 Mundl ended a long career at what is now Allina’s Courage Kenny Institute. She most recently was assistive technology resource manager at Minnesota System to Achieve Results (STAR) and webpage manager for Proctor Storage. She also hosted online assistive technology workshops and did work for Great Lakes ADA Center.
Mundl loved traveling, being outdoors, playing games, and going to plays and concerts with family and friends. She is survived by her parents, her sister and brother-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. Services have been held. Memorials are preferred to United Church of Christ in New Brighton and to various organizations serving those with disabilities.