Education secretary visits UI as part of national tour


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Julie Wurth is covering today's visit. Follow along here

URBANA — Like many other business students at the University of Illinois, Maddi Stark hopes to get an accounting degree, then an MBA, then a job at an accounting firm.

But the UI's highly ranked accounting program wasn't the only thing that drew her to the UI. The university's pioneering disability services program was a "huge determining factor" for Stark, who has a neuromuscular disease that causes her muscles to atrophy faster than normal.

"I knew I would need a lot of support, so I only applied to two colleges, U of I and a college five minutes away from my family's home," said Stark, who is originally from Wisconsin.

Post-secondary education for students with disabilities essentially got its start at the UI, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will visit campus today to talk with students about their experiences.

As part of his sixth annual "Back to School Bus Tour," Duncan will host a roundtable discussion with UI students about resources available for those with disabilities. He will be joined by Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. They will also stop by the men's and women's wheelchair basketball team practice at the Activities and Recreation Center.

The UI Disability Resources and Educational Services program has helped thousands of students with disabilities earn college degrees. It currently serves more than 1,500 students on campus.

UI Professor Tim Nugent founded the program in 1948 to help injured vets returning from World War II and others with disabilities overcome physical barriers to a college education — not a commonly accepted notion at the time. Over the next 40 years, the UI would become the first campus with curb cuts for wheelchairs, fixed-route buses with wheelchair lifts, wheelchair sports programs and a fraternity for students with disabilities, among other "firsts."

Pat Malik, current director of the program, said Duncan hopes to find out what services students use and how that's made a difference in their college careers. The theme for this year's bus tour is "Ready for Success," and Duncan wants to know "what makes them successful and where they see themselves going after college," she said.

Stark said the personal assistants and other support she gets at Nugent Hall help her live more independently. She also takes exams at the DRES testing center, which offers accommodations for students with disabilities.

"I don't have to worry about the logistics of how I'm going to take my exams," Stark said.

Senior Meridith Bradford, one of nine students who will participate in the roundtable with Duncan, said the program supports students in classes, too.

Bradford is majoring in sports management, and said what she's doing at the UI "wouldn't have been possible" without the support services offered.

There are only four schools in the country that had a top sports management program and a residence hall with personal assistants so she could "live on my own," said Bradford, a New Jersey native. She also landed a position as a student manager on the UI's wheelchair basketball team and hopes to find a job in adaptive athletics.

After the roundtable discussion, Yudin plans to visit the UI's Rehabilitation Education Center and the new Chez Family Foundation Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, tour the Beckwith Residential Support Center and take part in a discussion with a professor and graduate students in the College of Education's special education program.

This year's bus tour celebrates how states and local communities are working to expand access and opportunities for students from early learning through college, officials said. It runs through Friday and includes stops in Williamsfield, Ill.; Kansas City; Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; West Lafayette and Indianapolis, Ind.; Louisville, Ky.; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; and Pittsburgh.

Proud tradition

The UI had the first ...

  • Accessible university residence halls.
  • Wheelchair-accessible fixed route bus system.
  • Curb cuts at a post-secondary institution.
  • Study abroad program for students with disabilities.
  • College-level adapted sports and recreation program.
  • Wheelchair athlete to win an Olympic gold medal — Sharon Hedrick in the 800-meter exhibition event at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).