For more than 60 years, 88-year-old Tim Nugent of Champaign, Illinois, has been by far the nation’s most effective advocate in terms of creating educational and vocational opportunities for people with disabilities. After reading my column the next two weeks, perhaps you will agree
“They had no opportunities for higher education, no sports, no accessibility,” began Nugent in a telephone interview while referring to civilians and veterans with physical disabilities after World War II. “And yet these people with disabilities had the same aspirations, interests, talents, and skills you and I have. They just had to learn how to do them in a different way. Our task (at the University of Illinois) was to create an environment for them to be able to do things. Today, UI has graduates that are medical doctors, lawyers, senators, professorsevery position imaginable.”
Beginning in 1948 at UI, Nugent helped establish a number of “firsts” nationally for students with physical disabilities: a competitive college-level adapted sports program (1948); a disability service fraternity (1948); the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (1949); curb cuts for students using wheelchairs (1950); wheelchair accessible buses (1952); national architectural accessibility standards (1961); student study-abroad program (1965); and varsity letters to student-athletes with disabilities (1977).
I could go on, including the recent opening of Nugent Hall, a state-of-the-art accessible IU dorm for students with complex physical disabilities.
But those “firsts” took work. “It’s easy to change a doorway, for example, but not so to change people’s perceptions and attitudes,” said Nugent. “The concept of people with disabilities going into a regular college was very foreign to people in 1948. Some thought people with disabilities shouldn’t be out in the public eye.”
Besides people using wheelchairs, Nugent and his program embraced all people with disabilities, including those blind and deaf.
He said, “For years, 80 percent of those disabled early in life and applying to UI had never been to regular elementary or secondary school. They were applying in their 30s or 40s and this occurred into the 1970s. You’d be surprised the number of people with disabled children who were ashamed of their child and kept them hidden (and out of school). The attitudes of the schools and parents then was a big negative.”
Perhaps Nugent’s greatest legacy has been the more than 3,000 Illinois alumni with disabilities working throughout the world.
Next week, learn more.