The Big Ten Network and the University of Illinois tell the story of how one man changed the world for people with disabilities in “The Game Changer,” a new 30-minute documentary premiering Sept. 22. It will air at 8 p.m. CDT or immediately following the Illinois vs. Maryland women’s soccer game, which may move the broadcast earlier or later.
The program tells the story of Tim Nugent, known by many as the “Father of Accessibility,” who founded the first comprehensive program for college students with physical disabilities at the University of Illinois. Prior to the start of that program, people with disabilities were not expected to go to school, find employment or play sports. Those with spinal cord injuries were not expected to live more than a few years.
The new documentary examines Nugent’s fight in the early years of his program to change people’s perceptions of disability. Nugent’s research at Illinois also changed the way buildings are designed and helped lead to the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also pioneered the wheelchair sports movement, paving the way for Illinois wheelchair track Olympians Sharon Rahn Hedrick and Jean Driscoll.
Nugent’s program was started primarily to serve veterans returning from World War II who were eligible for free college tuition through the G.I. Bill. During the post-war years, the University of Illinois opened a satellite campus in Galesburg, Illinois, on the site of an old army hospital. The buildings were designed to accommodate stretchers and wheelchairs, so the American Legion convinced the university that the campus was the perfect setting for students with physical disabilities. In 1948, Nugent was hired to be the program’s first director, and that fall 13 students enrolled in the program.
One of the primary aspects of Nugent’s program was having his students play sports. Nugent believed that exercise and sports could have a great impact on a person’s well-being. He coached them in bowling, swimming and basketball. He even organized the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in 1949, and started the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. When asked why, he replied, “I thought, ‘What good is it to play basketball if you don’t have anyone to play against?’” More than 60 years later, Illinois wheelchair basketball teams continue to excel in international competitions.
In spring 1949, however, Gov. Adlai Stevenson announced the closure of the Galesburg campus. Nugent wrote over 300 letters to universities across the country, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asking if they would take his program. Each one said no. Nugent’s first student employee, Bob DeVore, remembers that “Tim took it as a challenge,” eventually convincing Illinois to take the program, though without any promise of funding.
Archival film and photographs from the University Archives document Nugent’s success, as well as his constant struggles to get his program off the ground. In interviews, current Team USA Paralympic athletes Tatyana McFadden, Josh George and Susannah Scaroni credit Nugent for his vision and paving the way for their own success. Eight-time Boston Marathon winner Jean Driscoll says, “Tim was part of a civil rights movement that wasn’t termed a civil rights movement.”
Nugent died in November 2015 at age 92.
“The Game Changer” was produced by Tim Hartin, Kaitlin Southworth and Alison Davis Wood for the Illinois’ Office of Public Affairs and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.