came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in August 1970 as a
freshman; I was immediately accepted into the occupational therapy
program. At the time, I had no clue that the UIUC campus was one of the
first nationwide to be wheelchair accessible, and had the reputation for being
the nation's most accessible campus. Thanks to pioneer and
visionary, Timothy Nugent, 1948 marked the start of wonderful things to come
for University students, staff, and faculty with disabilities.
known internationally for his accomplishments, was a Professor in the Division
of Rehabilitation Education Services (DRES) for many years until his 1985
retirement. A comprehensive program for people with disabilities was his
mission and he made it happen. He founded the first wheelchair basketball
team, The Gizz Kids, at the UIUC. Cut out curbs on campus as well as
wheelchair ramps and public buses with wheelchair lifts are all results of
Nugent's doings. Professor Nugent is still around and must be close to
ninety years old; last time I was at the symphony I spotted Professor Nugent
and his occupational therapist wife, a healthy-looking ambulatory couple.
campus in a wheelchair
one of my college classes at the Rehab Center we were required to spend an
entire day on campus in a wheelchair. It sounded like a fun and novel
idea but also scary. The class convened and we were quickly assigned our
wheelchairs. These were not custom fitted chairs in any way, just
bottom-of-the -line wheelchairs with no special features or bells and whistles.
have a clear recollection of my observations on that balmy day over forty years
ago. I am typically one of those people, both then and now, who seems to
move at a pace that is speedier than most people; getting around in a
wheelchair is considerably slower
than walking, (unless you are like my friend Betty who uses a power wheelchair
and loves to go "walking" with me because she knows I just can't keep up with
her when she is in high gear). Besides the slowness of propelling
yourself in a wheelchair, seeking accessible routes, at least for the first
time, is a deliberate process and takes time.
also quickly observed that propelling a wheelchair, especially up ramps, is
extremely hard work. I have
always been pleased to be in good health and reasonably strong, especially from
riding a bicycle and playing tennis. But that day on campus in a
wheelchair was a real workout and my shoulders ached for days.
most notable, when using a wheelchair is that your interaction with other
people is not face-to-face or
eye-to eye. You are looking into their belly unless they bend over or sit
down to interact with you. And even more discouraging than that is that
when in a wheelchair, you often become "invisible" to ambulatory folks.
think spending a day in a wheelchair should become part of every high school
curriculum (or elementary school) is increase disability awareness.