(The following article on Illinois professor Timothy Nugent, a pioneer in accessibility and wheelchair athletics, was published in the 2014-2015 edition of On Campus magazine. Nugent died Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.)
It all seems so logical now, especially at Illinois: the ramps, the curb cuts, the wheelchair-accessible buses, the world-class wheelchair athletes.
That was far from the case, however, in 1948, when an experiment began on a U. of I. satellite campus in Galesburg, Illinois – an experiment in higher education for those with physical disabilities. Coming less than three years after the end of World War II, it was aimed first at veterans, but open to non-veterans as well, men and women.
At the time, those disabled by spinal injuries were confined mostly to their homes, nursing homes or hospitals. If disabled at a young age, they often would have little schooling. Few worked or thought about college. Doctors often were overprotective and predicted they would live short lives. Parents sometimes hid them away.
Given all that, the Galesburg campus seemed an ideal place. A former hospital, it was all one-story buildings with wheelchair ramps and enclosed corridors between. A good place for care.
But it’s funny how one idea gets planted and then becomes something else, especially when there’s a driving force given free rein to shape it.
Timothy Nugent was a 24-year-old doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, seeking a topic for his dissertation, when he was hired to lead the experiment at Galesburg. He would be that driving force.
Later he would be called a visionary. At times, he’ll tell you, he was called a maverick, a radical, a troublemaker. Other times worse.
Some of the friction would come from challenging conventional wisdom and attitudes – about what people with disabilities could do, where they belonged, who they were. Some would come from fighting with university administrators and faculty for the support and accommodations he felt his students needed.
Nugent, now 91, retired in 1985 and now lives with his wife Jeanette in a retirement community in Savoy, just south of Champaign, and he can talk in great detail about those early years establishing what’s now called the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) on the Urbana-Champaign campus – the first comprehensive service program, and still one of the few, serving students with disabilities attending college.
In describing those years, he doesn’t talk about any great vision or plan.
“It was a progression of events that led us to different things, to different problems and different solutions,” he said. “It wasn’t one idea that just burst open.”
There was also the feeling “that this isn’t right the way it is.”
His attitude might be best described in a mantra, not necessarily original, that he would later drill into his students: “The presence of a problem is the absence of an idea.”
What became clear early on, however, was that Nugent believed in the benefits of sports and physical activity, and in independence even for those with severe disabilities.
“I knew after a month that these guys needed something else, something to give vent to their emotions, something to give them personal satisfaction, (a sense) of mastering a skill,” he said. What followed was wheelchair bowling, swimming, basketball, football, baseball. “As one was successful, we added another one,” he said.
A successful athlete himself in his teenage years during the Depression, Nugent knew how important sports had been to him. “I figured it could do the same things for these kids, and it did,” he said.
Different versions of wheelchair basketball had been started at different places around the same time, some of the teams based at Veterans Administration hospitals. In the spring of 1949, the Galesburg campus hosted the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, with Nugent’s Gizz Kids one of six teams and the only one associated with
From this came the founding of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, with Nugent as its first commissioner. He has yet to miss a national tournament.
None of this, however, made Nugent popular with doctors, who saw these students as more fragile. “The medical profession thought that a person with a spinal cord injury would live three months to three years. That was their prognosis at that time,” Nugent said. “That’s one of the reasons I was considered such a maverick, because I didn’t believe that.”
Doctors also were critical of other aspects of the program, such as requiring students to take a full load of courses after just one semester to adjust, Nugent said.
Part of the adjustment was a training program, prior to the start of school, to teach new students functional skills. “We lived in with them, taught them how to get in and out of bed, on and off the toilet stool, all sorts of things,” he said. Blind students were taught how to navigate the campus. It was known as “Nugent’s boot camp.”
The critics were not just doctors in those first few years, Nugent said. “Many of the parents doubted us, doubted me in particular,” he said. Some would stay in local motels, “scouting me out,” until he found a way to address their concerns at an annual fall banquet where alumni and experienced parents would speak.
Nugent felt that many attitudes and practices at the time worked against these men and women leading independent lives. It involved not only the way they were sometimes surrounded by caretakers, but the way those caretakers made decisions for them.
In that first year the program started a new rehabilitation service fraternity, Delta Sigma Omicron, established in part to raise and manage funds needed to support the program and its sports, Nugent said. But he made sure the students ran it, to prove they could manage their own lives and needs.
What gave Nugent the confidence to go in this direction is not entirely clear, though it’s easy to see how his earlier life contributed to his concerns and way of thinking.
He was born with a “bad heart,” he said. “The doctors had my mother scared to death, and she wanted me not to do this, not to do that. But I wanted to play, wanted to be with the kids.” He somehow overcame it and would play multiple sports.
“That was my social life, that was my method of achievement and recognition; it was everything to me at that time,” he said.
His father was nearly blind and deaf, though successful in business, and he saw a younger, talented sister go downhill psychologically when eye problems caused a doctor to restrict her activities.
Nugent also moved around a lot as a kid, within and around Milwaukee, living in various ethnic neighborhoods, which he thinks helped him learn to respect a variety of people.
In college during the war, before he was called into the service, Nugent studied health and physical education with an eye toward medical school. In the army, he would serve as an instructor in the medical corps, then study engineering for a time, before being shipped to Europe in an infantry division.
Throughout the combat in France, Belgium and Germany in the last year of the war, Nugent would serve as a company runner, thanks to his demonstrated athletic skills. He then coached or directed various military sporting events in Germany after the war.
But back in Galesburg in 1949, his fledgling disability rehabilitation program was losing its home. Word came from the state that the campus would be closed.
Nugent led a group of his students to the state capital to lobby the governor to keep the campus open, but weren’t able to see him. Seeking an alternate home at the Urbana-Champaign campus, they then paid a visit there.
“I remember taking planks from a paint scaffolding and laying them over the steps at Lincoln Hall,” Nugent said. “My wheelchair kids then wheeled up and down them to prove it could be done.”
Two co-workers at Galesburg also surveyed several hundred universities around the country, seeking other alternatives. “None of them would accept the idea, the total idea that we had,” Nugent said.
But that doesn’t mean the program got a warm embrace when finally accepted at Illinois.
The program’s new home would be five uninsulated tarpaper shacks that were part of the Parade Ground Units, a collection of temporary housing units just north of Memorial Stadium, which accommodated some of the post-war influx of students.
Nugent remembers being led to the units by a member of the committee responsible for the transfer of the program. This person showed him the units, confirmed with him that the program had its own funding, and that was it. “That was my welcome here on campus,” Nugent said.
In fact the program would go eight years on the main campus without any university funding, Nugent said. The program got most of its funding from the Veterans Administration, the Illinois Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, various grants and ticket sales from games and exhibitions by wheelchair sports teams.
Those games and exhibitions had a purpose beyond raising money, however. The first goal was exposure and changing public attitudes. “We were conveying a message,” Nugent said.
They communicated that message in the way they introduced the players, making sure to note what they were majoring in and therefore what they were planning to be. There also was a message in the way they played.
“They would see these kids fight with each other, I mean really scrap,” Nugent said. “They would see them get mad at the official; they would see the normalcy of their attitudes and their ambitions and their desires, as well as their skill, which was unbelievable.” Public attitudes would then change as a result.
On campus, Nugent and his staff had to work with numerous administrators and professors to get the accommodations his students needed: adding ramps to building entrances, installing curb cuts on key sidewalks, shifting classes to rooms that were more accessable, gaining access to gyms.
In doing all this, he found many supporters, but he most remembers the resistance. Some of it may have been simple bureaucratic foot-dragging, some of it concerns about inconvenience or cost.
It’s also possible some were just rubbed the wrong way by Nugent’s persistent manner.
But for some, it was more than that. The students just didn’t belong on campus, Nugent was told. They would be demoralizing or distracting. They had no use for a college education. “People did all sorts of mean, foul things, to try and destroy the program,” he said. And those attitudes, he found, were the hardest thing to change.
Even while Nugent and his staff were working to develop the program on campus, they were initiating and supervising research that would have an effect well beyond.
One example was the “ramp that led to nowhere,” on which researchers sought to find the ideal length and incline for persons with varying degrees of disability. Other research dealt with numerous other aspects of building design and accessibility, and Nugent would then play a leading role on the committee that would issue national standards in 1961 for making buildings accessible and useable by people with physical disabilities.
Research from the program also laid the groundwork for later legislation, from the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. And some credit the program as being the birthplace of the disability rights movement.
The program also has gone on to develop other facilities and services, covering a range of disabilities. In 1981, it opened Beckwith Hall, improving on an earlier housing program for students with severe disabilities who require daily assistance. In 2010 it moved those students and services into Timothy J. Nugent Hall, a new residence hall constructed not far from where the program’s early tarpaper shacks once stood.
The latest chapter in the Illinois legacy is the Chez Family Foundation Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, now under construction.
In addition to Nugent Hall, the university, community and state have recognized Nugent’s contribution in numerous ways in recent years. In 2007, he was awarded the Chancellor’s Medallion, recognizing his service to the campus, and saw Stadium Drive named Tim Nugent Way. In 2011, he was named a Lincoln Laureate.
And in 2013, the College of Applied Health Sciences, which includes DRES among its units, established the Timothy J. Nugent Professor in Rehabilitation Research, naming Tanya Gallagher, the college dean, as the first recipient.
Perhaps the most recent honor to Nugent’s legacy comes in the story of Tatyana McFadden, born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, who graduated from the U. of I. in 2013. That same year she also became the first athlete to win four major marathons in a single year, taking the women’s wheelchair division at London, Boston, Chicago and New York City.
It’s a very different image from 66 years ago when Nugent first saw the need to encourage physical activity and establish independence for those with disabilities, and to change attitudes about who they were and what they could do.
“The presence of a problem is the absence of an idea,” Nugent liked to say.
The other thing he liked to say: “Go as far as you can see, and when you get there, you’ll be surprised by how much you learned along the way and how much further you can see. And then you keep going, keep going.”