Patricia John Thoben, 44, who devoted most of her life to working for equal rights for the handicapped, died of cancer Tuesday at Georgetown University Hospital.

For the past three years, Miss Thoben a paraplagie, who had to use a wheelchair, was a senior program assistant in the office of selective placement programs of the Civil Service Commission.

Before that, she had worked in the same area for 13 years in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In 1974, Miss Thoben made news when two airlines refused to accept her as a passenger on their flights to Philadelphia on the grounda that she would be unable to leave the plane by herself if an emergency should occur.

The Federal Aviation Administration was called upon to draft regulationss after the action aroused heavy criticism. Formal regulations approved by the FAA this April and effective May 16, require all airlines to accept as passengers as many physically handicapped persons as possible to establish procedures for handling such passengers in case of emergencies.

In the GSC, Miss Thoben played an important role in the overall administration of federal policies, practices and procedures for the hiring, placement, and advancement of handicapped persons.

She also worked to develop a proposal for an appeals system to hear discrimination complaints from handicapped federal employees and applicants.

Miss Thoben had come to Washington in 1961 to work with the division of mental retardation of the Public Health Service and later with the Rehabilitation Services Administration in HEW.

She coordinated liaison throughout HEW and with other federal programs and consumer groups concerned with health services, mental health and mental retardation. She also worked on national and international grants and on a national mental retardation information center.

In 1973 and 1974, Miss Thoben directed and monitored all employment actions for disabled employes in the Social and Rehabilitation Services of HEW.

Although disabled, she traveled extensively, representing the federal government at national and international meetings on employment of the handicapped and rehabilitation services.

Miss Thoben wrote extensively and was cited for her "Civil Rights and Employment of the Severely Handicapped" article, published in the Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin in June, 1975. She also held many professional honors and commendations.

Born in Anderson, Ind., Miss Thoben had been paralyzed from the waist down since birth. She graduated from St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., and earned a master's degree in clinical psychology from DePaul University in Chicago.

Miss Thoben, who lived in Arlington, had been a caseworker, providing services for handicapped patients and families in the Illinois Department Public Welfare, before coming here in 1961.

She is survived by her mother, Florence Thoben, of Arlington; her father, Robert H. Thoben, of Anderson; four sisters, Cynthia Kathlerine Huber and Sue Anne Spatz, both of Bowie, Phyllis Jean Hasiak, of Munster, Ind., and Karen Elizabeth Thoben, of Indianapolis, and three brothers, Gregory K. Thoben, of Washington, and Richard J. and Phillip Michael Thoben, both of Indianapolis.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy may be in the form of contributions to the National Children's Medical Center.