News Local/State

Davis, Kirk, Seek Congressional Honors For ‘Father Of Accessibility’

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis visits with Tim Nugent at Nugent Hall on the U of I campus Saturday.

U.S. Rep Rodney Davis visits with Tim Nugent at Nugent Hall on the U of I campus Saturday. (Jeff Bossert/WILL)

The University of Illinois’ main campus in Urbana was among the first in the country with accommodations for those with disabilities, ranging from bus routes, to residence halls - to a wheelchair sports program.  There’s now an effort in Congress to honor the man whose innovation started it all. 

Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to recognize Tim Nugent with the Congressional Gold Medal.  It would be first such award given to someone who fought on behalf of the disabled, and the first given to a U of I faculty member.  

Nugent, 92, was the first director of the U of I’s Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services. 

He started with the university in the late 1940’s, and he said it took a while to change attitudes.

“The last few years, acceptance of these ideas has just amazed me," he said.  "Because for years, I was being fought.  But the last 15 or 16 years, the university’s gotten behind it, and become proud of what was done, but for years, it wasn’t that way.”

DRES started at the U of I's former Galesburg campus in 1948 before moving to the flagship campus. 

At first, the program, aimed primarily at veterans, had no financial support from the U of I – and had to rely on various funding sources, like grants, and tickets to wheelchair sporting events.  At one time, Nugent was also forced to relocate as many as 600 class sections a semester to accomodate students with disabilties.

Rep. Davis visits with residents of the U of I's Nugent Hall Saturday

Photo Credit: Staff of U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis.

13th District Republican Congressman Rodney Davis of Taylorville is co-sponsoring the bill to honor Nugent with U.S. Senate Republican colleague - and stroke survivor - Mark Kirk of Illinois.

“He understands how important this is, he’s a great person to be able to partner with to honor Mr. Nugent," Davis said.  "So Mark can talk about his own struggles, and what it would mean if he were back in college.”

The idea for the honor was introduced by Champaign resident and U of I graduate A. Mark Neuman.

"You want people to know about someone who didn’t just change physical accommodations, he changed our attitudes, and that’s heroic,” he said.

Davis said there's no telling how fast the measure could move through Congress, but said he planned to discuss the bill with people he serves in Congress that are impacted by disabilities.

He was in Prague a month ago, and said the lack of amenities he saw for the handicapped on that visit made him think of what U.S. residents take for granted.

"The curb cuts, the wheelchair ramps, the access, the width of doorways, automatic bathroom doors, stuff that we just don't even bat an eye at," Davis said.  "In Europe, still today, the accessibility is not there.  And I don't travel a lot, so it was interesting to see that."

The Congressman visited the U of I campus Saturday, and toured portions of Nugent Hall, which includes Beckwith Center Support Services, home to many disabled students.