CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tim Nugent, who died Wednesday at the age of 92 in Urbana, Illinois, was a visionary who changed the world for people with disabilities.
Starting with a small program at the University of Illinois a few years after World War II – but for years with little support, and often outright opposition – Nugent sought to change both the opportunities for people with disabilities and public attitudes about them.
“Where other people saw invalids that would forever be relegated to a position on a porch, watching life go by, Tim saw future corporate leaders, scientists, educators, lawyers, doctors and international athletes,” said Brad Hedrick, who came to Illinois as a doctoral student in 1977 and would follow Nugent as a director of the program he created, now called the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services. (Nugent retired as director in 1985 and Hedrick became the program director 10 years later.)
“I don’t know how to state how unimaginably incredible that vision was,” Hedrick said. “Where most of us can only see the curve ahead, Tim was one of those unique people who could imagine what was around it that we couldn’t see as a result of our pervasive values and beliefs.”
Nugent was a 24-year-old University of Wisconsin graduate student seeking a topic for his dissertation when, in 1948, he was placed in charge of an experiment in higher education for people with disabilities. Coming only three years after World War II, the program was aimed first at wounded veterans, but then open to nonveterans as well, both men and women.
The program began on a U. of I. satellite campus in Galesburg, Illinois, but was moved to the Champaign-Urbana campus the following year.
At the time, as Nugent noted in a story last year, those disabled with spinal injuries often were given little schooling, and were confined mostly to their homes, nursing homes or hospitals. Doctors often were overprotective, and parents sometimes hid them away. Few worked or thought about college.
Nugent began changing that paradigm almost immediately, implementing a wheelchair version of sports ranging from bowling to football and baseball. He would start the first men’s wheelchair basketball team associated with a school, the Gizz Kids, and would become the first commissioner of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Nugent would use those sports teams to raise money for the program and as a tool for changing attitudes by holding games and exhibitions in various communities. As part of that, player introductions included making note of their majors and what they were planning to be.
In decades after, the Illinois program would become a center for athletes with disabilities – producing hundreds of Paralympic medalists, including the first to win a gold medal at the inaugural games in Rome in 1960, as well as winners of major marathons in the wheelchair division.
Among other firsts that resulted from Nugent’s leadership: the first fixed-route accessible bus system on a college campus, the first accessible dormitory for students with severe physical disabilities, the first universal accessibility standards for architectural design, and the first university service fraternity for person with disabilities.
One disability rights activist, Fred Fay, commenting in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the program, described it as “the birthplace of what we now call the disability rights movement.” Research from the program laid the groundwork for later legislation, from the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
In making all this happen, Nugent was “tenacious,” according to Hedrick. (Nugent said he was called a radical and a troublemaker and worse.) “But when you are advocating a paradigm that is antithetical to that which everyone believes is true, that is not a process for the faint of heart.”
“Tim was a living legend, a pioneer who truly changed the world,” according to Jean Driscoll, a graduate of the program, multiple winner of the Boston Marathon in the women’s wheelchair division, and now a senior director of development for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Illinois. “His early focus was on providing opportunities for students with disabilities, but much of what he did has made life easier for everyone. Think of the curb cuts and how many people use them. Think about buses with lifts. They not only accommodate individuals with disabilities, but also those with short-term injuries or weaknesses.”
Nugent’s legacy has been recognized in various ways in recent years. In 2007, he was awarded the Chancellor’s Medallion by the university, and the city of Champaign named Stadium Drive on campus as Tim Nugent Way. In 2010, the campus opened Timothy J. Nugent Hall, replacing Beckwith Hall, a residence hall opened in 1981 for students with severe disabilities who require daily assistance. In 2011, Nugent was named a Lincoln Laureate by the state of Illinois. In 2013, the College of Applied Health Sciences, which includes DRES among its units, established the Timothy J. Nugent Professor in Rehabilitation Research. And at the May commencement ceremony this year, Nugent was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
“Tim was the epitome of what we can and should all be professionally in terms of our passion and commitment to what I saw in his life as a calling,” Hedrick said. “He was dedicated to changing the stereotypical and patronizing disability paradigm that was pervasive in the 1940s and 1950s, and over his career he persisted in doing that locally and at the state, national and international levels. He forever changed the trajectory of the lives of people with disabilities everywhere.”
“He was an inspiring role model of the positive difference someone can make who can conceive of the possible and pursue it with perseverance, determination, commitment and resourcefulness,” according to Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences. “He changed the world for persons with disabilities and in so doing helped to make it a better place for us all.”