‘If you build it, they CAN come’: A legacy of accessibility advocacy at McMaster

Tim Nolan is wearing a suit and standing next to his wife Kim, who is sitting in a power wheelchair. The couple is next to a sign that reads, “Tim Nolan Testing Centre,” along with a quote from Nolan – “Each person is unique, with their own passions and goals. McMaster is a place where individuality and leadership can be nurtured. Look for opportunities where you can make a positive difference in the lives of others.” In the background is the Student Accessibility Services logo.

Tim Nolan, the former director of Student Accessibility Services (SAS) who worked at McMaster from 1988 until his retirement in 2020, alongside his wife and fellow accessibility advocate, Kim Nolan. In August 2022, the SAS testing centre was renamed the Tim Nolan Testing Centre in recognition of Nolan’s longstanding advocacy for accessibility and accommodation on campus.

Barrier-free washrooms. Wheelchair ramps. Automated door openers. Voice annunciation and braille in campus elevators.

These are just a few of the accessibility improvements made throughout McMaster University over the past 35 years, thanks in part to the trailblazing leadership of the university’s former director of Student Accessibility Services (SAS), Tim Nolan, BA ’86, BSW ’04.

While Nolan retired in 2020, he and his wife Kim, BA/BSW ’04, MSW ’09, continue to enhance accessibility on campus and advocate for students through philanthropic giving.

For nearly a decade the couple has been committed to supporting students through charitable gifts. They established a bursary in 2014 in honour of Nolan’s parents. The Jeanne and Peter Nolan Award is awarded annually to students in a social work program registered with SAS.

In 2022, the Nolans established the first donor-funded bursary for graduate students registered with SAS: The Kim and Tim Nolan SAS Graduate Student Award. It is awarded by the School of Graduate Studies to students who demonstrate academic excellence, are enrolled in a Social Sciences program and registered with SAS. Preference is given to students in the social work program.

The Nolans also recently supported the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE) with a gift to purchase specialized exercise equipment to help break down physical and mental barriers. Kim regularly attends PACE and praises the centre for its dedication to accessibility.

They are also leaving a gift in their will to SAS and PACE.

“We simply hope to be a helping hand to others who live with a disability,” said Nolan.

“Kim and I have both benefited from the kindness of others, so we would like to give back, or pay it forward, so to speak.”

Kim echoed her husband’s sentiment and added, “giving back to McMaster gives hope to those with disabilities that they can make a good life for themselves, just like we have.”

The need for accessibility

Nolan was hired in 1988 as the university’s first program coordinator to facilitate academic accommodations for students with disabilities. Having lost most of his eyesight due to diabetes, he wanted to use his lived experience to help others with disabilities.

“I learned quickly from students and faculty that they wanted accommodation through accessibility,” said Nolan.

“In addition to academic accommodations, I knew I needed to help create a more accessible campus.”

At the time, the university wasn’t fully accessible to those with physical disabilities. Nolan recalled several stories of students who had to overcome barriers, including a student who was carried up and down the stairs in his motorized wheelchair by his peers, and another who had to ride a freight elevator to reach the dining room in the Commons Building.

“These stories didn’t sit well with me,” he said. “I began working closely with Facility Services (then called Physical Plant) to find solutions to these barriers students faced.”

One such student was Nolan’s future wife, Kim.

Kim lives with multiple sclerosis and requires the use of a wheelchair. She first attended McMaster in 1993, when there was only one accessible washroom on campus.

“I couldn’t get to that one accessible washroom on my own, so it made going to school a challenge,” said Kim.

“When I met Tim, he acknowledged there was an accessibility issue on campus and it inspired me to also want to help improve the university.”

Advocating for change

The couple made it their personal mission to bolster accessibility at McMaster and in the community.

Some of the challenges Nolan faced ranged from insufficient funding for accessibility upgrades to a lack of awareness from colleagues. Despite these challenges, he continued his fight to make campus more accessible and educate others on the importance of accommodation.

“There were countless discussions with personnel from the university,” he explained. “I spoke with contractors, architects, the person who draws the campus maps, project managers, directors. I arranged sessions with the Ontario Human Rights Commission to meet with the president and vice-presidents so leadership could learn about the university’s obligation to creating an accommodating environment.”

Many of the fundamental services and amenities we take for granted today were led in partnership with Nolan. He was instrumental in securing accessible computer equipment so students can access coursework, installing wheelchair lifts, ramps and elevators, and undertaking a multi-year project to build wheelchair-friendly washrooms in every building on campus, among other projects.

Meanwhile, Kim began supporting students after she graduated in 2004 from the combined bachelor of arts/bachelor of social work program, working as an academic assistant in the gerontology program (now called Health, Aging & Society).

“I helped first year gerontology students secure a 10-hour placement, which was one of the requirements for the course at the time,” she said. “I also helped with a web-based, non-credit course that supported fourth-year students with professional development.”

Kim continued to work as an academic assistant while enrolled in the master of social work program, and was hired as a career transition coordinator and disability specialist with Career Services after she graduated in 2009.

During her tenure, she oversaw the delivery of disability-related education and academic accommodations, support and counselling services, and career development programming to students with a wide range of disabilities.

“My goal was to help students with disabilities find meaningful employment aligned with their academic interests and career goals.” 

The impact of accessibility

In recognition of Nolan’s pioneering advocacy, the SAS testing centre was renamed the Tim Nolan Testing Centre in August 2022. Located in the McMaster University Student Centre basement, the testing centre provides accommodations for students who require support for exams.

“When they phoned Tim to tell him they were naming the centre in his honour, it was the first time he’s ever been speechless,” recalled Kim.

“It was almost surreal,” added Nolan. “I don’t know how else to describe this honour.”

Now enjoying their retirement, the couple continues to be engaged with McMaster and support a variety of disability-related causes in the community.

Kim volunteers with the McMaster Collaborative for Health and Aging as an older adult and caregiver member to ensure the needs, perspectives and aspirations of older adults are reflected in the collaborative’s work. Likewise, she is active in supporting the educational journeys of students in the Health, Aging & Society Program.

“When I was an academic assistant in the gerontology program, I ran a program where I would bring in seniors from the community to run tutorials for first-year students,” Kim said. “Now, after all these years, we’re volunteering for the program as seniors. It’s funny how it has come full circle.”

As Nolan reflected on his own legacy at McMaster, he encapsulates the impact of accessibility on campus by putting his own spin on a famous movie line from the 1989 film Field of Dreams.

“Instead of ‘If you build it, they will come,’ I believe ‘If you build it, they can come.’ By creating a more accessible campus, students of all abilities can attend and thrive at McMaster.”

Why McMaster donors give: At McMaster University, every single gift, no matter the size, has the potential to make a difference in the lives of our students, the quality of our research and our ability to give back to our community and influence the future. We asked some of our donors and their families what motivates them to give. These are their stories.

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