by Andrea Poolman
As the grandmother of a young boy with Cerebral Palsy who uses a wheelchair and a walker for his mobility, I have become painfully aware of the ways in which typical playgrounds exclude those with disabilities. ADA compliance does not guarantee usability. Paved paths all too often lead to mulch that is impossible for wheelchair/walker users to navigate and even if persons with mobility issues could maneuver across the wood chips, the play equipment, with very few exceptions, is not designed to be inclusive. Standard playgrounds segregate and isolate children based on ability. I have witnessed first-hand the disappointment that results when a child is relegated to the sidelines, separate and apart.
Skagit County and Cities within the County are in the midst of long-range comprehensive planning for playgrounds and parks. I was hopeful that universal design allowing for inclusion would be a priority in the planning process so that individuals of all ages and abilities could play together. I discovered that this is not (yet) the case.
Persons with disabilities comprise the largest minority group in the Nation and the numbers are increasing. Medical advances are saving and prolonging lives. More premature infants (like my grandson) are surviving and living with disabilities. These children as well as others with disabilities need to play too. In addition, the elderly, Veterans (Wounded Warriors), and other adults with disabilities could more easily enjoy parks as well as play with their children and grandchildren if inclusive design was a reality.
Inclusive Parks in Our Region
There are numerous inclusive parks and playgrounds throughout the country, including the Northwest. More are being built all the time. Playgrounds that do not address this need are behind when it comes to the growing widespread awareness of universal design principles that allow for all to play together. In many cases where Inclusive design has been realized it has resulted from advocacy by families of members with disabilities. The general public and most official planning entities are simply unaware of the obstacles, the need, and the possibilities. I was not aware of the issue until I took my young grandson to playgrounds only to discover there was nothing he could engage with once there.
A simple Internet search for “inclusive” or “sensory” playgrounds yields numerous examples such as: Miner’s Corner in Bothell, Inspiration Playground in Bellevue, Evergreen Rotary Park in Bremerton, Play Garden in Seattle, Seaview Park Playground recently opened in Edmonds and Eli’s Park Project that recently broke ground on the south end of the Burke Gilman Trail in Seattle. These inclusive playgrounds are all an hour or more away from Skagit County.
Play is Essential for Human Development.
Inclusive playgrounds benefit all children, families and communities. Children enjoy playing with other kids, but kids with disabilities are often left on the sidelines because many playgrounds lack proper equipment that allows them to engage with others in active play. Engaging in active play with peers enables children with disabilities to focus on the things they have in common rather than their differences. It also fosters acceptance of differences by children without disabilities.
Inclusive design allows parents and caretakers opportunities to access the playground and reduce the isolation they often experience due to barriers still present in merely accessible (but not inclusive) environments. Inclusive playgrounds also benefit the community by promoting understanding and awareness of differences. Communities are often unaware of the numbers of individuals with disabilities there are simply because those individuals are not present in the places like playgrounds that families who do not have to contend with barriers can easily frequent. A young man who uses a wheelchair told me he stopped going to playgrounds as a child because there was nothing he could do once there. An inclusive playground is welcoming to all.
All children have the right to play. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, free unstructured play is not a frivolous activity but essential to healthy physical, emotional, mental and social development, so much so that they recommend Pediatricians prescribe free play. It impacts brain development. Research has found that children with disabilities who lack these play experiences, suffer from a secondary disability termed “play deprivation.”
Accessibility is just the beginning
An inclusive playground utilizes universal design elements that are appropriate for all ages and abilities. Features such as surfacing for ease of use by mobility devices (wheelchairs, walkers etc.), multisensory activity panels, ramps to slides and other features, and quiet cozy spaces for children with autism and other sensory processing disorders to decompress if they are experiencing sensory overload, are just some of the elements included in inclusive design. Fully inclusive playgrounds are the ideal but if that is not possible specific features and equipment can be added to existing playgrounds. One example of a feature that could easily be added is the We Go Round merry go round for wheelchair and non-wheelchair users. Importantly, it allows all ages and abilities to play together, side by side and face to face.
My hope is that the community will embrace our families and children with disabilities and join other enlightened cities by creating play spaces welcoming to all. Local Governments and Park Departments are responsive to the community; therefore it is important we raise our voices to be heard on this important issue. Those not personally impacted by disability can be allies in creating a more inclusive world and support families often too overwhelmed by complex medical and educational challenges to take on another project.
In a perfect world, every community park and playground and every school playground would be fully inclusive so that children and adults with disabilities would no longer be excluded and segregated based on ability.
I look forward to the day when I can watch my bright, imaginative, highly social and naturally joyful grandson play and make friends as is his right and when the playground is not a sad experience for him and others with disabilities but the happy experience it is meant to be.
Andrea Dygert Poolman is the grandmother of a young boy with Cerebral Palsy and has become an advocate for inclusion since experiencing the multiple ways her grandson and those with disabilities are excluded from activities others take for granted. Andrea was employed for 30 years as a Juvenile Probation Officer and At-Risk Intervention Specialist for Skagit County, working directly with youth and their families to provide case management services while coordinating with Juvenile Court, Schools, and Social Service Agencies to support youth facing challenges and help them succeed.