Over the course of over 70 years, the history of the University of Illinois has been marked by many “firsts” in the field of education and accommodations for those with disabilities. Originally, disability accommodations at the University were formed to serve those with physical disabilities due to war injuries, but they have since grown to include those with congenital physical disabilities as well as psychiatric disabilities and everything in between. Today, it is evident through the physical building of the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) division that it was built with the needs of those with physical mobility issues in mind; the DRES building is one story tall and has elevators with touch-pads to motion up or down located just above the ground. Even though the University and State of Illinois were initially against the public funding of DRES, having a physical building for their division has since created a safe environment for students with disabilities to access needed resources. Additionally, students with disabilities needed more accessible housing and around-the-clock care, and Beckwith Hall opened in 1981 as part of DRES. In 2010, Beckwith Residential Support Services relocated to the newly constructed Nugent Hall, as a part of housing now–thus increasing visibility to the rest of campus and access to the Ikenberry housing resources as well.
Students with wheelchairs in front of Beckwith Hall, 1982.
Nowadays, DRES offers a wide array of services, which we learned about from Maureen Gilbert, DRES’ Campus Life Coordinator. DRES Students have access to exclusive social workers, psychologists, career services, note-taking services, and proctored testing facilities in order to ensure they can get the support to succeed inside of the classroom and beyond it. As Maureen said, for example, it is especially crucial nowadays for DRES students to get note-taking services, because the virtual format of most classes nowadays has caused added stress to education for many students. At the same time, the building itself highlights the accomplishments and stories of many current and former DRES students from their student life experiences studying abroad or having romantic relationships to their career achievements after college. These experiences do not come easy, but accommodations, such as having the first wheelchair power lifts on buses, have helped DRES students experience UIUC campus life to its fullest. As Maureen pointed out, the MTD does indeed have wheelchair accessibility, but DRES continuing to have charter busses for their students is beneficial to help them get around during busy times between classes. It can be hard enough for any student in general to get a spot on a crowded bus, but for DRES students, it is naturally even harder. Maureen also highlighted the story of a former student with autism majoring in CS + Linguistics whose dream was to work for Microsoft, and eventually with the help of DRES career services and a corporate partnership with Microsoft, he was able to do so. Additionally, with Microsoft and other tech companies, DRES is working to help pioneer the field of web content accessibility for those with disabilities.
Wheelchair power-lift on bus, date unknown.
In terms of athletics, DRES supports dozens of paralympic and international athletes, especially in the sports of wheelchair racing and wheelchair basketball. Partnerships with the athletic department, for example, let athletes race and practice in the same spaces and alongside non-wheelchair athletes. This increased visibility and normalization was also seen in the Olympics in the 1990s where wheelchair racing was featured as a sport in order to increase popularity and awareness of wheelchair sports in the international arena. At the same time, members of DRES work alongside researchers and athletic companies to innovate technologies and tools to make athletes faster — including 3D printing for wheelchair racing gloves. Not only do these gloves go toward their students but they also go toward young athletes interested in participating in sports like their peers.
Timeline from 1988-2008 of highlighted UIUC Paralympic-medalling athletes.
As DRES grows in reach and magnitude at the University of Illinois, it meets challenges in funding and general accessibility practices. DRES itself hopes to expand its sports facilities, but their proposed new athletic facility will cost an estimated $245 million and has no current funding pipeline. While the University has publicly acknowledged said development, it remains a pipe dream for now. As well, while the ADA is celebrating its 30th anniversary, there are still a lot of architectural advancements, such as the elevator button that DRES features, that would make the lives of those with physical disabilities easier, but they are yet to be mandated across the board. Additionally, web content accessibility remains a large pain point but many websites remain not fully accessible to those with vision impairments or screen readers. In challenges such as these, DRES’ partnerships with policy-makers, donors, and corporate sponsors proves crucial in making changes benefitting accessibility beyond just the UIUC campus.
In general, I think that these authors would agree that these innovations furthered inclusion and diversity on campuses. Through the creation of cultural houses on Nevada Street, the University leaned into the demands of various ethnic groups’ need to have visibility and learn about their culture (Hoxie and Hughes 219). These buildings provided safe spaces and personalized programming for minority groups, and in doing so, generations of minority students have felt supported while on campus — as merely accepting is not enough to do justice. For Black students specifically, the advent of the Afro-American Cultural Center in 1969 provided workshops on writing, dance, and gender roles among other topics (Williamson 82). By being able to participate in African American culture and heritage, Black students specifically could feel supported and have a sense of community with their Black peers. Through the creation of the Special Educational Opportunities Program, the University sought to aggressively increase enrollment of disadvantaged students, especially Blacks, to the ballpark of 500 students (Williamson 57). This program ultimately resulted in an increased socioeconomically and racially diverse student body, but there were many hurdles including acceptance and retention. All in all, the effects of these strategies lives on today, but there is still a long way to go in terms of racial justice on campus. The University under-accepts Black students, relative to the population of Illinois, across the board but especially in the high-paying fields of engineering. As well, departments and divisions supporting minority students are not funded at the same levels of certain colleges, such as Engineering or Business.