CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tim Nugent, the visionary first director of a ground-breaking University of Illinois program for students with disabilities, is being inducted posthumously into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame.
Nugent will be formally inducted, along with 12 others, at an awards dinner Nov. 1 at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Nugent, often been called the “father of accessibility,” is being inducted as a “special contributor.” The rest of the 2019 class includes individual athletes, a team, a coach and two “legends.”
As part of the induction, a story about Nugent’s life and career has been posted in the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum’s Digital Museum. His story also was told in 2016 in a documentary for the Big Ten Network.
Nugent was a 24-year-old World War II veteran and University of Wisconsin graduate student when, in 1948, he took charge of a new program that has since become the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services at Illinois. Established first to serve the needs of wounded World War II veterans seeking to attend college, it later opened to other students with disabilities and would become the first comprehensive service program of its kind.
Para-athletics was an essential part of Nugent’s vision from the start, having seen the value of athletics in his own life and the restrictions then being placed on people with disabilities. He encouraged his students to bowl, swim, and play wheelchair basketball, football and baseball, among other sports.
Tim Nugent with his Gizz Kids wheelchair basketball team.
University of Illinois photo
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The first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, with Nugent’s Gizz Kids one of six teams, was held in 1949 on the university’s short-lived Galesburg, Illinois, satellite campus where the program operated during its first year. The National Wheelchair Basketball Association was founded as a result, with Nugent as its first commissioner.
Moved to the Urbana-Champaign campus, the program has since made the university into a major center for para-athletics, producing hundreds of Paralympic medalists and winners of multiple major marathons in the wheelchair division.
One of those athletes, Jean Driscoll, was inducted into the Hall of Fame after winning 12 medals over four successive Paralympics, including gold in the marathon in her final two, 1996 and 2000. She also won the women’s wheelchair division in the Boston Marathon seven years in a row.
Also in the Hall of Fame are U. of I. alumni Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972; Abie Grossfeld, who coached the U.S. men’s gymnastics team to an all-around gold medal at the 1984 Olympics; and Bob Richards, who medaled in the pole vault in three successive Olympics, the last two earning gold.
Nugent’s contribution was not only in para-athletics. Among other firsts resulting from his leadership were 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.
In all aspects of his program, Nugent sought to foster independence for people with disabilities, to challenge conventional attitudes of the time about what they could do, and to get the funding and accommodations he thought his students needed – often against stiff opposition.
Disability rights activist Fred Fay, commenting in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of Nugent’s U. of I. 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.
Nugent was “a pioneer who truly changed the world,” said Driscoll, following Nugent’s death on Veterans Day, 2015, at age 92. “His early focus was on providing opportunities for students with disabilities, but much of what he did has made life easier for everyone.”
“He forever changed the trajectory of the lives of people with disabilities everywhere,” said Brad Hedrick, once a doctoral student in Nugent’s program and later its director.
Nugent’s legacy was recognized in a number of ways prior to his death. 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 and in 2015 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the U. of I. In 2013, the College of Applied Health Sciences established the Timothy J. Nugent Professor in Rehabilitation Research.
The 2019 inductees into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame were determined by a voting process that included Olympians and Paralympians, members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic family, and an online vote open to fans, according to a Hall of Fame news release. This will be the 16th class, with the first inducted in 1983, and will bring the total number of inductees to 154 individuals and teams.