Timothy J. Nugent

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portrait of Timothy Nugent with a wheelchair behind him
Timothy Nugent. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Timothy Nugent was instrumental in providing access to education for individuals with disabilities and in changing public attitudes and assumptions about these individuals. He was born on January 10, 1923 and passed away on November 11, 2015. As a child, he lived with family members with disabilities, which led to him developing sympathy towards people with disabilities.

His father was partially blind and his sister started losing her vision at a young age. The doctors told her to stop activities she enjoyed, such as playing the piano, and Nugent saw how this negatively impacted her emotional and psychological well-being. This would influence his work later in life.

There were many more misconceptions about people with disabilities and what they were able to do during the twentieth century. Most people believed that those with disabilities needed constant help and could not live on their own. Services for those with disabilities tended to be limited to moving people to institutions or keeping them in a back room of the house.

Nugent was attending Tarleton State University in Texas when he decided to join the army during World War II after the Pearl Harbor attacks. After the disastrous war, he talked with his fellow soldiers at the army hospital and found that many of them had a lack of hope due to their injuries.

5 men in army uniforms with arms around each other in front of a building
Tim Nugent, second from right, with fellow soldiers in Germany, 1945.

Many had spinal cord injuries and doctors did not understand these injuries well. Doctors believed that those with these injuries would only live 3 months to 3 years. These experiences helped him become interested in those with disabilities.

After World War II, under the G.I. Bill, veterans with disabilities could receive education and rehabilitation training. From 1947-1948, a former Veteran Affair’s (VA)  Hospital in Galesburg was converted to a University of Illinois satellite campus in anticipation of an influx of veteran students. The VA thought this might be a good place to experiment with disabled veterans receiving an education since it was already accessible.

Man using curved rails to help him walk, while two other men look on
Tim Nugent (right) working with a person during some rehabilitation therapy.

Tim Nugent was hired as a director for the first university program in the country for students with disabilities while he finished his M.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin.

After the Galesburg campus was closed, Nugent and his students had to fight for the program to be relocated. They initially reached out to the governor who refused to see them and hear their case. They then wrote to schools around the country, receiving a rejection letter from all of them, including the University of Illinois.

3 students in wheelchairs and Tim Nugent next to an airplane that has France on the side
Tim Nugent convinced universities to have accessible study abroad opportunities. These are 3 of 6 students in a trial run for study abroad with Tim Nugent. 1975

The students and Nugent went to the University of Illinois and demonstrated that students could attend classes if ramps were built. The university was still hesitant but Nugent and students found a technicality in the GI Bill – all veterans were allowed to receive an education, no matter their abilities. The University of Illinois had to let veteran students attend. They then also admitted civilian students with disabilities for rehabilitation and educational services.

mens wheelchair basketball team in huddle
Tim Nugent with the Gizz Kids

Nugent was focused on rehabilitating the whole person, and not just their injuries. This could be seen in the sports program he devised for students with disabilities and the fraternity for students with disabilities. In 1949, Nugent organized the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament at the Galesburg campus. Also, Nugent created the first college wheelchair basketball team in the country.

It was not an easy transition to get the University of Illinois to accept students with disabilities, in fact some professors and administrators believed people with disabilities would be depressing and negatively impact their current students. Nugent and the students had to advocate for themselves a great deal.

two buses with wheelchair lifts. Students in wheelchairs are using the bus and Nugent and another man stand next to the buses
Tim Nugent also was the first to push for accessible buses and find someone who was willing to make these buses for students. 1957

Unfortunately, students with disabilities also encountered a lot of obstacles due to a lack of universal design on the campus. Nugent researched to find new architectural standards for students with disabilities such as what an appropriate angle for an incline would be and what width doors and hallways would be accessible for a wheelchair. This work later influenced the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Students still benefit from the actions of Nugent today. The Disability Resources and Educational Services helps those with disabilities seen and unseen. This unit is able to advocate for students and make sure they receive appropriate accommodations to be successful as students. There is also a larger sports program, which has produced many Paralympians.

Interview of Dr. Nugent (28 minutes):


Rehabilitation Education Center. This is where the Disability Resources and Education Center is currently housed.

Lincoln Hall. This was the first building that Nugent and others demonstrated that simply adding a ramp to the building would help students in wheelchairs be able to access the building for classes. They built a ramp out of planks until a proper one was built.

Chamberlain, C. (2015, November 12). Tim Nugent a pioneer in changing life for people with disabilities. Retrieved from https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/277535

Disability Resources & Educational Services. (n.d.). History of Disability Services at the University of Illinois. Retrieved from https://www.disability.illinois.edu/history-disability-services-university-illinois

Gizz Kids and Timothy J Nugent. (1955). Division of Rehabilitation Education Services Photograph File, 1950-2002. Record Series 16/6/11, Box 5, Folder 50th Jubilee – Photographs. University of Illinois Archives.

Illinois Public Media (2013, Oct 16). Illinois Pioneers with Dr. Tim Nugent – October 3, 2013 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mqc8ynZsTpc&feature=emb_title

National Wheelchair Basketball Association. (n.d.) Dr. Tim Nugent Endowment Fund. Retrieved from https://www.nwba.org/timnugent

Rehabilitative Walking with Tim Nugent. (n.d.). Division of Rehabilitation Education Services Photograph File, 1950 – 2002. Found in Record Series 16/6/11, Box 4, Folder 23: 030 – Physical Therapy and Medicine. University of Illinois Archives.

Semester Study Abroad. (1975). Timothy J Nugent Papers 1939-2007. Found in Record Series 16/6/20, Box 24, Study Abroad Program: Aix-en-Provence, France, 1975. University of Illinois Archives.

Students with Disabilities Use Bus Service. (1957, Sept 24). Photographic Subject File, 1868-. Found in Record Series 39/2/20, Box PHE – 4, Folder PHE – 4 Rehabilitation 1957-60. University of Illinois Archives.

Tim Nugent and fellow soldiers in Germany. (1945). Timothy J Nugent Papers 1939-2007. Found in Record Series 16/6/20, Box 35, Tim Nugent Scrapbook 9, ca. 1945. University of Illinois Archives.

University of Illinois. (n.d.) Timothy Nugent: The Game Changer. Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/lecture/accessibility/timothy-nugent-the-game-changer-98qMQ



Contributors: Jimin Lee