Nugent helped change nation

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Daniel Vance

For more than 60 years, 88-year-old Tim Nugent of Champaign, Ill. 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, professors – every 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.

Nugent 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.”

Contact danieljvance.com [Palmer Bus Service and Blue Valley Sod made this column possible.]