I don’t remember the first time I met Dr. Nugent. But I remember the first story I heard about him. In 1990 I had moved from Oregon to Illinois, I’d been recruited to play wheelchair basketball for University of Illinois, at that time the foremost wheelchair sports program in the world. Not only was the entire campus accessible, there were busses specifically for the students with disabilities, a rehabilitation center with one non-disabled parking spot and a gym made specifically for wheelchair athletes.
“Why did they build the rehabilitation center here in Illinois?” I asked. Illinois is known for having frigid winters, and sometimes with the humidity we weren’t even supposed to go outside. Someplace warmer seemed like it would have been a better choice for that early rehabilitation center. In a wheelchair, navigating the icy sidewalks and snow was difficult. I’ll never forget the winter half the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams got stuck in the drain in the iced over parking lot.
The rehabilitation center was built at University of Illinois, because Dr. Nugent had written to 250 universities and Illinois was the only one that even said maybe. That tells you how far we’ve come; however, there is still a long way to go.
Today, only 16 percent of people with disabilities obtain post-secondary degrees and we still have twice the unemployment rate as the able-bodied population,that goes up to 70 percent if you count all the people with disabilities who have just dropped out of the work force and are no longer looking for work.
University of Illinois made a huge difference in my life and although I had very minimal interaction with Dr. Nugent, everyone I was surrounded by at University of Illinois had expectations of me even though I was a wheelchair user. They had the same expectations of me that they had of the able-bodied students; they expected me to be on time, complete my studies, get a degree and be a part of society.
From Illinois I went on to be a public relations specialist, a humanitarian aid worker in Iraq, where I created an innovative program for people with disabilities, a State Director in Sudan where I was extracted from the civil war and today I’m a public speaker and I consult with companies who are interested in diversifying their workforce with people with disabilities.
Dr. Nugent has a huge legacy, his vision for people with disabilities was unprecedented back in the 1940s, and it lives on today in all the lives he touched through sports for people with disabilities and most importantly, the attitude that he had towards and about people with disabilities—tough love. He once said, “Because of the negative attitudes I had to be a little harsher with my students then I would have liked to be.”
It’s that tough love mentality that empowered me. And it’s that tough love mentality I talk about when I keynote about disability. We were and are just like everyone else and the best thing you can do for anyone with a disability is to have expectations of us.
Thank you Dr. Nugent.
To read the news story on Dr Nugent visit: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2015-11-11/uis-tim-nugent-pioneer-accessibility-dies.html