University of Wisconsin-Whitewater graduate Jon Feucht has built a career out of filling people with hope through enabling communication.
“My dream is that communication device users are accepted into mainstream America so completely that they can work where they want to work, live where they want to live and perhaps most importantly, lead the lives that they want to develop for themselves.”
His dream has been long in the making. The Waupun native, who has cerebral palsy, first came to UW-Whitewater for a wheelchair sports camp when he was 17 with just a board with 500 words or so that he could point to, word by word.
It was not the perfect camp in and of itself, because the other campers had more abilities than he did, but he did go on to enroll as an undergraduate student at UW-Whitewater.
"All of my life I had heard how UW-Whitewater was set up for people with disabilities, so it was ingrained in me that if I wanted a life I would need to come to school here."
On campus, Feucht discovered limitations, even though Whitewater was set up for people who use wheelchairs.
“At the time, they could have supported speech disabilities better. There were four students with speech disabilities when I was on campus.”
After he came to UW-Whitewater as a student, he had the opportunity to try his first true communication device. He was so taken with the device, he did a two-week internship at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to help other people with disabilities learn how to communicate.
“Getting a communication device was the greatest thing. I knew I had to share it to make sure nobody else went without a voice,” said Feucht.
To share the opportunity, he founded the Authentic Voices of America summer camp for young augmentative alternative communication device users in 2001. The goal was for young people aged 12 to 19 with severe expressive speech disorders to learn effective ways to get the most out of their devices while hanging out and having fun.
“I was still an undergrad. Everyone was expecting it to fail! Even I thought, ‘Well, maybe we’ll get a second year’… looking back on 17 years, it is amazing.”
The camps have hosted between six and 20 campers at a time.
“Many campers come back year after year, and some continue on to school at UW-Whitewater. I just saw a former camper on campus today.”
Feucht met his wife, Sarah, during the camp’s third year. “Before I met her, I had my mind made up that it was my last camp.”
Feucht went on to graduate with a degree in psychology with a minor in English writing and later earned an MSE in special education. Today, he is working on his doctorate in education.
“I always told my dad I would finish college in five years and then leave Whitewater,” Feucht said, “But I realized after I started school that I wanted to make Whitewater home.” His parents will be on hand at the Founders Day event on April 22, which is also their 50th wedding anniversary.
Feucht lives in Whitewater with his wife and continues to passionately advocate for people to communicate to their full potential with mainstream America, not just to a parent or caregiver.
“To teach people to say hello to somebody or to show them how to tell their parents they love them is something amazing,” he said. “There is so much more to life and communication than just expressing needs.”