Chapter 5. The University of Illinois
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94 5 The University of Illinois The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly called the GI Bill of Rights), provided every American serviceman or -woman honorably discharged after World War II with the opportunity to pursue a college education. Among those eligible were veterans disabled as a result of their service. However, although they wanted to attend college like their nondisabled peers, they found that, almost without exception, American schools were either unwilling or unable to accommodate them. The principal exception was the program for students with disabilities at the University of Illinois. Established by Timothy Nugent in 1948, the program was first housed at a makeshift campus at Galesburg, before moving to its permanent home at Urbana-Champaign, where it would become alma mater of an entire generation of disability rights leaders, including Fred Fay, Kitty Cone, Mary Lou Breslin, and others. Timothy Nugent “What would they do with a college education anyway?” Timothy Nugent was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Disability was an integral part of his childhood. His younger sister had “severe visual problems ,” and his father had both hearing and visual disabilities. As a child Nugent himself was diagnosed with a heart condition, and his parents were advised to limit his physical activities. Nevertheless, he volunteered for service in the US Army during World War II. Virtually everything Nugent did at Urbana-Champaign those first years was innovative. Faced with his students’ need to navigate a large campus, Nugent oversaw the construction of a fleet of lift-equipped buses—the first in the nation. Curb ramps—virtually unheard of—were built initially on campus and then in the larger community. the university of illinois 95 In 1959, Nugent became the first director of research and development at the American National Standards Institute Project A117, with the goal of setting standards for ramps, curb cuts, door widths, and other accommodations. The standards developed by the ANSI project became the basis for subsequent architectural access legislation and regulations. Nugent was also an early advocate of wheelchair athletics. In 1949, he founded the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, and served as its commissioner for the next quarter century. He personally toured with the teams, going out into communities where people with severe disabilities often had never been seen in public. In some ways, Nugent appears to have accepted and incorporated into his program the “whole man” rehabilitation philosophy of the time. Fred Fay recounts what he calls “hell week”—an orientation during which students with severe physical disabilities were expected to fend for themselves to the extent possible (and then some), with no expectation that the community had any obligation to provide accommodation or assistance. On the other hand, Nugent’s championing of curb ramps, lift-equipped buses, and architectural access went far beyond the approach of most rehabilitation professionals of the era, who often ignored any need for society to make accommodations for people with disabilities. Nugent, then, might be seen as a bridge between the paternalism of the vocational rehabilitation movement of the 1940s and ’50s and the modern era of disability rights. Clearly, without his vision and persistence, an entire generation of advocates might not have received the education that enabled them to be more effective political activists. Galesburg was a brand new hospital that was used briefly but then not needed when the war ended. It was built like most of the army hospitals in those days, a series of one-story buildings connected by corridors. Once youwerein,youcouldgotoalmostanypartofthefacilitywithout having to encounter steps or go outdoors. There were, I think, 126 wards, connected by corridors. Some were turned into classrooms, some into labs, some were turned into dormitories. And so the American Legion and others thought, “Hey this would be a good place to try and get some of our disabled veterans in.” And so I went down in a quasi-consulting role, and was offered the directorship of the program. I went down there during the ’47–’48 school year, but I joined the faculty officially in September of 1948. 96 chapter 5 I’m going to guess that there were about three thousand students that first semester, with about twenty-three or twenty-seven disabled students . They were housed intermixed with other students. This is also a guess, but I think of that about twenty-five individuals in wheelchairs were veterans and maybe three or four were not. Very definitely there were people who didn’t think we belonged there. One of...

Subject Headings

  • United States. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • People with disabilities -- Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • People with disabilities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
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