Timothy Nugent’s vision, dedication and hard work paved a path of accessibility in education and sports that has touched the lives of thousands of people with disabilities.
The accessible sports world lost a great leader late last year in the establishment of wheelchair basketball and education for people with disabilities. Dubbed the “Father of Accessibility”, Timothy Nugent passed away November 11, 2015 in Illinois at age 92. Throughout his life, Nugent was at the forefront of the fight to prove to universities, government and the general public that people with disabilities have the same aspirations, skills and talents as everyone else. “We’ve come a long way since the apathy of the 1940’s and 1950’s,” Nugent said in a 2008 Sports ‘n Spokes article.
Beginning in the late 1940’s, he founded the first comprehensive program of higher education for individuals with disabilities at the University of Illinois. There, he served as professor of rehabilitation education and director of the Rehabilitation Education Center and Division of Rehabilitation Education Services until his retirement in 1985.
In 1948, he organized the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NWBT) which led to the establishment of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) a year later. Nugent served as NWBA Commissioner for the first 25 years. Not the least on his list of accomplishments, he laid the groundwork and advocated for architectural accessibility standards, accessible transportation and adaptive equipment and recreational activities.
“His mantra was ‘the presence of a problem is the absence of an idea’, which led him to break down many of the barriers that people with impairments face in all spheres of life, from education right through to sport and making the built environment accessible for all,” says Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, in a press release.
Born in 1923, Nugent witnessed firsthand the emotional and psychological effects visual impairments had on both his father and sister. He served in the Army in World War II, where he met many of the veterans who would later inspire him to build the program at Illinois. The GI Bill had opened the doors of education to many veterans, but for those with a disability there were “medical suppositions,” he said. The medical professionals at the time didn’t know how to handle spinal cord injuries (SCI).
Those veterans, including himself, who were hurt in the war found university administrators unwilling to accept them as students because of the extra cost and liability involved. Nugent said in a 2013 interview in Illinois Pioneers. After the war, the dean of the University of Illinois-Galesburg campus asked Nugent to head the university’s new rehabilitation program. He boosted the program’s viability in the community, even after the governor announced the Galesburg campus would close in April 1949.
Bumps in the Road
Galesburg had been an Army Hospital before it was purchased by the University of Illinois-Galesburg. This made it ideal for the birthplace of the Rehabilitation Education Center, now known as the Division of Disability Resources and Education Services (DRES).
Nugent’s goal was to help the students, many of whom were attending a public institution for the first time, to develop the skills to live independently. He faced the obstacle of trying to convince some parents to leave their children at the campus; others had to be convinced their children would benefit from obtaining a degree in the first place.
By fall 1948, 13 students with disabilities attended the school full-time. When the governor announced the Illinois- Galesburg campus was closing, Nugent lead a contingent of 20 veterans and non-veterans to march the Capitol. The demonstrations shed new light on Nugent’s program and garnered statewide attention. The 13 students had been promised two years of college, so the university administration agreed it would accept them on the main campus at Urbana-Champaign.
As the program grew, so did the need to provide accessible buildings and transportation. Nugent culled together funds from supporters to build ramps and install curb cuts. He also established the rehabilitation service fraternity, Delta Sigma Omicron. He obtained two busses and, with the help of a friend who fabricated bus parts, installed the first wheelchair lifts for buses on the university campus.
With these modifications, Nugent set a precedent for other universities around the country and began to level the educational playing field.
The sport of wheelchair basketball would not exist as we know it without Nugent’s participation. World War II veterans with disabilities invented the game and organized teams but he broadened the game’s scope beyond veterans and streamlined the rules. He organized and coached the nation’s first collegiate wheelchair basketball team, the Gizz Kids, to give the students an outlet for their energy and to develop their feelings of self-worth and satisfaction.
In 1949, Nugent brought six teams together from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals for the first NWBT. To create year-round structure for the game, he founded the NWBA. New rules made the game more similar to able-bodied basketball, so it was easier for fans to follow. Today NWBA consists of more than 175 teams from the US and Canada with men, women, collegiate and youth divisions.
Nugent served as president of the National Paraplegia Foundation, now the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, for four terms. He held degrees from Tarleton State University, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin. He also has honorary degrees from Springfield College in MA and Mount Mary College in WI.
In 2013, the US College of Applied Health Sciences, which includes DRES, established the Timothy J Nugent Professor in Rehabilitation Research. He also was active in the American National Standards Institute, the Illinois State Legislative Commission on the Hospitalization of Spinal Cord Injured, the Committee on Technical Aids, Housing and Transportation of Rehabilitation International, and the Institute for the Advancement of Prosthetics.
“Dr. Nugent dedicated his life to helping others and through his efforts he created many opportunities for individuals with disabilities,” says Sarah Castle, president of the NWBA, in a release. “We are thankful for his vision that ultimately touched so many lives on and off the basketball courts. His legacy with the National Wheelchair Basketball Association is remarkable. He has touched so many great athletes, coaches, officials and leaders. My life is richer for all of his contributions as are those of countless other athletes and we will cherish all you have done for those with disabilities. You will always be fondly remembered in the wheelchair basketball community.”
Brittany Martin - Sports’n Spokes January 2016
A final note from Wheelchair Sports Federation on the Legacy of Tim Nugent:
The WSF would not exist without Mr. Nugent, (with myself in 2008) and Al Youakim. Both were pioneers in Adaptive Sports since World War II and selfless leaders. It has been my distinct honor and privilege to know these great individuals, to learn from them and most importantly to be called their friend. They provided thousands of individuals the opportunity to play sports and more importantly they taught hundreds of us how to keep providing those opportunities in the future through their tireless and extraordinary dedication.
The last time I saw Dr. Nugent was at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield MA.when the NWBA moved their Hall of Fame to the museum for permanent display. The NEPVA Celtics and NJ Nets Wheelchair Basketball Teams were proud to play an exhibition that weekend and even more so to do it front of the individuals who made Adaptive Sports possible in the United States. We may never see the likes of Dr. Timothy Nugent again but his Legacy will last as long as there are Adaptive Sports.