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Before The Paralympic Games, Tim Nugent Was Pioneering Adaptive Sports

By Stuart Lieberman | Oct. 25, 2019, 9 a.m. (ET)

Tim Nugent coaches the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball team.


The late Tim Nugent used to receive letters from the parents of able-bodied students, complaining that their sons and daughters had to sit in their University of Illinois courses next to “freaks.” The-se able-bodied students, after all, had to share classrooms with peers who used wheelchairs, hopped on crutches or were missing a limb.

At that time, post-World War II, people would see a person in a wheelchair on the street and run in the other direction. Many wheelchair users were still confined to their homes and received little schooling, with doctors being overprotective and parents hiding them away. Nobody wanted to spend resources on individuals who, according to past stereotypes, would have no value to society.

This made Nugent, the father of accessibility in the United States, determined and stubborn. He tenaciously proposed ways to create equal opportunities for people with a disability, both in sports and society.

Nugent’s efforts began even before the word “Paralympics” existed, and now as one of the pioneers of accessibility he’s posthumously being inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2019.

“There are tens of thousands of people he’s impacted directly, but millions of people who he’s impacted indirectly,” said two-time Paralympic medalist Will Waller, a University of Illinois graduate and current CEO of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA).

In 1948, at 24 years old, Nugent was placed in charge of an experiment in higher education for people with a disability. Three years after World War II, he opened a program at the University of Illinois satellite campus in Galesburg on the site of an old army hospital to serve veterans who were eligible for free college tuition through the G.I. Bill.

With 13 students who had physical disabilities in the program, he implemented wheelchair versions of sports ranging from football to basketball. He held exhibitions in local communities to raise funds for the program and show spectators that people with a disability can partake in sports, too. That program, now known as Disability Resources and Educational Services on the U of I’s Urbana-Champaign campus, was so successful that it has now grown into a hub that has produced hundreds of Paralympic medalists, including the first to win a gold medal at the inaugural Paralympic Games in 1960, and is now a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site.

“Because of his work at the University of Illinois, the alumni of the program have accumulated more medals than many entire countries,” Waller said.

According to University of Illinois’ wheelchair track and field coach Adam Bleakney – himself a four-time Paralympian – ever pillar of Nugent’s vision is still intact in the program today: high-level athletic performances, community outreach, local and global education, research and innovation, and athletes serving as ambassadors for the disability community. 

“His reach has affected many Paralympians who don’t even know who he is, but his positive influence has molded and influenced their lives,” Bleakney said. “He’s had such a profound influence on the lives of athletes, anyone with a physical disability, and even beyond that.”

In 1949, Nugent founded the NWBA and served as the commissioner for its first 25 years. He had the courage to pursue what was unpopular at the time — sports for people with a disability — and he also motivated people with a disability to pursue new activities on their own. He was always very approachable, according to Waller, taking an investment in each person he met through the NWBA.

“He attended all of the national tournaments for the NWBA up until his death in 2015,” Waller said. “I was always blown away by how deep his relationships were with so many people and organizations. He was iconic, and even though he was iconic, he made time for every person.”

Nugent’s efforts went well beyond sports. He was on the leading edge of research and development for individuals with a physical disability, a tenacious visionary when it came to changing perceptions. At the University of Illinois, he created the first fixed-route accessible bus system on a college campus, the first accessible dormitory, new and appropriate slopes on ramps, and the first set of universal accessibility standards for architectural design.

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Nugent built ramps for fun in his own garage and rose early in the morning to drive disabled veterans to class. There’s a famous picture that hangs on the wall today at the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) building at Illinois that shows the “ramp to nowhere,” one that  Nugent was constantly developing to test and validate what gradients and slopes were the safest and most effective for wheelchair users.

No matter how stubborn Nugent was, always knowing what he wanted to accomplish, his fortitude brought real global value and created today’s architectural standards of disability. His innovations were so successful that many of them were adopted globally, including his vision for curb cuts, which became the standard for all major metropolitan areas around the world and are now useful to a larger population than just wheelchair users.

“His legacy is access,” Waller said. “There are 61 million adults in the U.S. with a disability and 8 million of those have a mobility impairment. All of those people are able to access sports or daily activities in their life because of him.”

Nugent’s pursuit of equality went beyond people with a physical disability, too. In the 1960s, he drove with the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball team to play a local squad in Memphis that was mainly composed of African-American players. The teams were to dine at a restaurant together, but the restaurant staff wouldn’t let the African-American players in. So Nugent encouraged all of his team’s athletes to take their food, go outside and eat with them.

In 2015, Nugent passed away on Veteran’s Day at age 92. But his legacy will live on forever. 

“It isn’t just about the impact of Nugent, but the impact of Nugent and all of those he mentored,” Waller said. “We’re now tasked with carrying that legacy forward.

“I’m really inspired daily by the desire to try to continue that legacy by someone who has benefited from what he’s done. My goal is to try and work as hard as I can to have just a fraction of the im-pact that he did.”

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the 2012 and 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of  Red Line Editorial, Inc.