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
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
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: