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A brand new University of Illinois (UI) residence facility named Nugent Hall is marking a milestone for a college that is already a leader in disability services.

In a recent article by Jodi S. Cohen for the Chicago Tribune, this state-of-the-art dormitory is highlighted, as are the special needs students for whom the facility was created.

Cohen interviews Kelsey Rozema, who has needed her parents’ help with most daily tasks like getting out of bed, showering, putting on a coat, and even opening a water bottle-because she has very limited use of her arms and legs.

In 18 years, they’ve been apart for only six nights, so moving into a college dorm this week and being away from the reliance on her family is even more of a milestone for Rozema than for most of the thousands of other wide-eyed freshmen arriving this week at UI.

It helped that she moved into UI’s first new residence hall in 44 years and the most user-friendly dorm in the country for students with severe physical disabilities. Cohen described that as Rozema wheeled into her single room for the first time, a disability advocate showed off some of the dorm’s advanced features like: a wireless pager that will call for help 24 hours a day and a remote-controlled ceiling lift system to transport her from her bed to the in-room bathroom.

Although UI is already recognized as a front-runner in disability services for students, Nugent Hall will allow students with even the most severe disabilities (all use motorized wheelchairs or scooters) to get the personalized care they need while being integrated with typical students.

The students with disabilities will live on the first floor, with about 150 other students on the floors above them. That number that will expand to 500 when the dorm is completed in the next two years.

Down the hall from Rozema lives Ben Fultz, a 21-year-old transfer student who has cerebral palsy. His mother, Ellen, was overwhelmed by the features-remarking how even the window blinds can be closed with a button. “It is truly better than what we have at home,” she said.

In addition, the sinks, thermostats, and light switches are at an accessible height.

Other accessible aspects include:

  • Dorm room doors open by waving a wireless card.
  • Faucets are sensor-activated.
  • The roll-in showers come with chairs.

But according to Cohen, perhaps the most unique aspects of the building are the dorm’s personal assistants (PAs)-most are UI students who live in the building to help the students with disabilities shower, use the bathroom, and even hook backpacks on their wheelchairs before leaving for class. After the Rozemas accidentally hit a pager while putting away books, a PA arrived in under two minutes and asked, “Did you buzz?” Residents will also learn how to hire, schedule, and manage their PAs-and students get five hours of PA help a day and can schedule the hours around their classes and social lives.

In all, 17 students with severe physical disabilities will live this year on the first floor of the new hall, named for Tim Nugent, who in 1948 founded UI’s division of disability services-the first higher education program of its kind in the world.

“It is a remarkable statement about the commitment of this campus to ensure that those who are most marginalized in their access, if they have the desire and the capacity and the willingness to pursue a degree-Illinois is committed to making that a reality,” said Brad Hedrick, director of UI’s disability services. The opening of the dorm continues UI’s legacy of making college accessible. In fact, UI was the first college to introduce curb cuts, offer bus routes equipped with wheelchair lifts, and have a wheelchair sports program.

Rozema said she will rotate between about a half-dozen personal assistants who she scheduled to help with bathroom breaks, showering, and getting in and out of bed. The eventual goal is for students to learn independent living skills and transition to more mainstream housing, whether on a higher floor, in a different dorm, or to an apartment.

After focusing all morning on arranging Rozema’s books, clothes, makeup, and room posters, her mother unexpectedly became overwhelmed with emotion as she looked to her daughter and said, “This is what I always dreamed of, for you to one day go to college. I am so proud of you.”

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Read more: State-of-the-Art Dorm for College Students with Disabilities Opens

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