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Disability Life
Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities
 

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Our Shared History

by Steven Brown

Playing sports and locating a home of our own are discussed elsewhere in this issue. They are goals of many young and older Americans, including people with disabilities. One place and time where these two goals came together was Illinois in the 1940’s. 

When World War II ended in 1945, many returning veterans, including those with disabilities, sought to convert their soldiering experience into an educational one. Congress enacted the G.I. Bill to pay for part of veterans’ education. Former soldiers with disabilities had a more difficult path than their non-disabled counterparts. Imagine the excitement when an accessible Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Galesburg, Illinois, became a satellite campus of the University of Illinois in the 1947-48 academic year, and the disappointment a year later when the University decided to close that campus. The program’s director, Timothy Nugent, appealed unsuccessfully to hundreds of other universities and colleges to adopt the program.

Unwilling to accept defeat, Nugent and the students headed to the state capitol in Springfield to request that Governor Adlai Stevenson intervene to stop the closure. Their effort did not succeed. 
The students refused to give up. They continued their self-advocacy by seeking to move the “Rehab Program,” as they called it, to the University’s main campus at Urbana-Champaign. Following more demonstrations that included building temporary ramps from wooden planks to show how easy it would be to accommodate wheelchairs, the University begrudgingly granted “experimental” status to the rehabilitation program at Urbana-Champaign. 

The University limited the number of students who could be admitted - refusing 15 students for every one who got in. The program itself offered disabled students medical services, physical and occupational therapy, prosthetics, counseling, recreation and a bus service.

In 1954, a politically savvy group of students succeeded in getting Illinois Governor William Stratton to serve as the keynote speaker at the annual disabled students’ awards banquet. Although the banquet had not previously been attended by University administrators, the Governor’s appearance packed the house. That evening, Governor Stratton gave a stirring speech on the benefits of rehabilitation and the importance of the effort being developed at Illinois. From that point on the program’s legitimacy was never again seriously questioned.

The program expanded to include non-veterans in the 1950’s and offered accessible transportation, housing to undergraduate, graduate and married students, peer counseling, specialized medical care, individually designed assistive devices, and ADL training. 

The University of Illinois claims the following firsts: 

bulletresearch leading to the development of the first architectural accessibility standards that would become the standards of the American National Standards Institute. 
bulletthe first wheelchair accessible fixed route bus system 
bulletthe first accessible university residence halls
bulletthe first university service fraternity and advocacy group comprised of students with disabilities
bulletthe first collegiate adapted sports and recreation program for students with disabilities, which also produced the first wheelchair athlete in the world to win an olympic gold medal. 

 

Learn more about this program at: 
“History of the Division of Rehabilitation-
Education Services”
http://www.rehab.uiuc.edu/history.html

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