Last week, I featured 88-year-old Tim Nugent of Champaign, Illinois, who has been the nation’s premier advocate over the years helping expand opportunities for all Americans with disabilities.
Beginning in 1948, he accomplished a number of national “firsts” at the University of Illinois, including in the ’50s of having wheelchair accessible buses and curb cuts, and starting a wheelchair basketball association tournament. He helped develop national architectural accessibility standards and the nation’s first comprehensive higher education program for people with permanent disabilities.
More than 3,000 UI alumni with disabilities are his greatest legacy. He retired in 1985.
“We had one lady born without legs below the hips,” Nugent said of an UI student. “One arm ended at the shoulder; the other at the elbow. So she didn’t have hands or fingers. She went through the University, learned to drive her own car, and is teaching today. We also had one boy who was blind with both arms amputated, which meant he couldn’t read Braille. He ended up working for the State of Illinois.”
He added, “We had one woman, a quadriplegic, who came to UI nonfunctional. I evaluated her. She had fractured her neck in an car accident. Early in college, she had to take three hours each day to get ready for school. Later, she completed her degree, became a Paralympic Games medalist, and drove a convertible. She married, and could make breakfast for her family and get to work by 8:00 a.m.”
UI has had other successful alumni with disabilities, including 8-time Boston Marathon winner Jean Driscoll, an executive vice president of the nation’s largest agricultural commodities firm, and countless physicians, lawyers, and state and federal office holders.
Though still not ideal, he suggested societal attitudes about people with disabilities have improved dramatically since 1948. “In our early years,” he cited as one example, “a father wrote to the president of UI to say his able-bodied daughter was dating one of my wheelchair students. In the letter, the father said, ‘I suppose the University is trying to do something for these poor unfortunates, but isn’t there something you can do to protect our sons and daughter from these freaks?’ The president sent me the letter. It was ridiculous. Some of the most successful marriages are among able-bodied and wheelchair-using people. That (disabled) gentleman ended up being a brilliant student and is a lawyer today.”