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Unfair play: the fight for a truly inclusive playground

In 2012, access to play became a civil right; but kids with disabilities can still face exclusion from playground fun

MINNEAPOLIS – Lucas Dean loves the playground. But for the 4-year-old Minnesota boy with spina bifida – a spinal abnormality that keeps him from using his legs – a typical playground can be filled with obstacles: areas where his wheelchair won’t work, play structures he can’t use and woodchips that cut into his hands and legs.

"Sometimes he’s looking up and watching his friends kind of run away," said his father Jay Dean. "He’ll kind of lose his temper a little bit. He’ll be shouting after his friends."

In 2012, the federal government made access to play areas a civil right under the Americans with Disabilities Act. New or renovated playgrounds that reach a certain size are now required to have accessible play equipment.

The Minneapolis playground Lucas visits is new and meets ADA criteria, but he still has difficulty rolling on its engineered wood fiber surface. Most of the time, he has to leave his wheelchair behind and wear gloves and long pants to drag himself along the ground. At other times, his father carries him from structure to structure.  

According to Lucas' father, his son's challenge illustrates a recurring problem for the roughly 7 million children and youths with disabilities in America: While the ADA has made playgrounds more accessible to them, it hasn't ensured that they can play on the equipment once they get there.

This isn’t a trivial matter, according to child psychologists. Play is how children learn to relate to each other, follow rules, make friends, understand the world and form identities. And when kids with disabilities feel isolated and different at this formative age, when they’re unable to simply play with other kids, the effects can be long lasting.

Brooklyn’s playground

More than 1,200 miles away from Minneapolis sits a playground a world apart. It’s named after Brooklyn Fisher, a young girl with spina bifida who lives in Pocatello, Idaho. Brooklyn’s playground opened in October 2011 and is widely considered one of the most inclusive ones in the world.

"The first thing that we absolutely knew we had to have was the surfacing," said Brooklyn’s mother Melissa Fisher, who oversaw the design. "We knew there couldn't be any rocks or bark … it had to be solid surface for kids with wheelchairs or walkers."

Brooklyn Fisher's little sister pushes her up one of the many ramps at Brooklyn's playground.

The poured-rubber ground cover goes beyond ADA standards, and is the most expensive kind of playground surfacing. The playground also has safety features like ramps leading up to the play structures, swings with back supports and a single entrance to keep children from wandering off.

The playground is also unusual for how it was built. The price tag was steep –$500,000 – and Pocatello isn’t a wealthy area. But unlike most public playgrounds, it wasn't built with public funds. While the city donated the land, the project was entirely funded by nonprofit grants and grassroots fundraisers such as lemonade stands and garage sales. Thousands of families in Pocatello donated money and volunteered to build it. There’s nothing like this playground for hundreds of miles, and children with disabilities from across the Rocky Mountain region travel here for the simple experience of playing like a kid.

This is the story of many fully inclusive playgrounds in the country, according to advocates. They’re built with private funds raised by frustrated families.

When the playground opened, Brooklyn’s school took a field trip there. That was the first time Melissa Fisher says she got really emotional.

"I saw her with all her best friends play like every other child," she said. "She wasn't on a different level, there was nothing different about how she was playing with them. They were all just enjoying play together and they did it for hours."

Fisher says the playground has had a radical impact on her daughter’s confidence. One day at the playground, Fisher says Melissa told her that she was going to be the babysitter and that she would come get her when she was done.

"It was really great to see her not being dependent on us," Fisher said.

But according to experts, inclusive playgrounds like this one are the exception, not the rule.

Brooklyn is now in third grade. At her school, the playground is nothing like the 28,000 square foot dreamscape of color and whimsy that bears her name. During recess, Brooklyn will once again be somewhat segregated from her classmates. 

The right to play

Lucas Dean (left) sometimes loses his temper when other kids run ahead from play structure to play structure. He doesn't have that luxury.
America Tonight

When it came to the ADA, recreation was left to be dealt with last, said Marilyn Golden, a disability rights advocate in Berkeley, California, who had a key role in realizing the law.

"People say, 'Well maybe it's more important that you get to school or to work than you get to the playground or that you participate in a sport,'" she said. “And that may be true if you really had to pick, but let's hope that we don't, because recreation is a very important sphere in American life.”

The ADA turns 25 next year, and it is considered the most important and comprehensive civil rights legislation for the disabled community, but it is also a work of compromise. Golden, who served on the U.S. Access Board, says the ADA seeks to strike a balance between the rights of disabled people and the entities that are required to comply with it. For example, play structures at family-run daycare centers are not required to meet ADA standards, for fear that the cost burden would be too high. 

Playgrounds that are being refurbished, for example, only have to meet ADA standards if the cost of compliance is less than 20 percent of the overall project cost.

And as Jay Dean begins to organize fundraising for a playground where Lucas can fit in, cost, particularly for rubberized surfaces, is the major obstacle. He expects it will take five years before the playground becomes a reality.

And I want him to be able to do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it.

Jay Dean, father of child with spina bifida

“I want Lucas to be happy, and he is,” said Dean. “And I want him to be able to do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it.”

And the cost of not building it could be great too.

“First of all, it really points out to the child that he or she is different,” said Brian Abery, a research associate at the University of Minnesota, who studies what happens when children with disabilities can’t play with other kids. “If he or she can't access a playground, it also means that they are not exposed to role models who would help them develop their social skills, their emotional skills.”

And it doesn’t just impact the kids with special needs, he added. If playtime isn’t segregated, able-bodied children develop the ability to empathize and work with their peers who are differently-abled.

"If that person at age 40 is making hiring decisions, they're going to look at somebody's capacities, rather than whether they have a disability or not,” he said. “So I think it sets the stage for development of both children with and without disabilities, to make this a much more inclusive world, five years down the road, 10 years down the road and decades from now."

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