New Accessible Playground Rules May Not Go Far Enough

Aug 28, 2013
Originally published on August 28, 2013 4:57 pm

Last year, the federal government made accessibility standards at playgrounds mandatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act so that children with disabilities can more easily play alongside typical kids.

But whether children with disabilities are able to enjoy their new civil rights to play may depend on where they live, and the design decisions their cities and towns made when they built local playgrounds.

For 3-year-old Emmanuel Soto, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, the local playground's design doesn't work.

On a recent afternoon, his parents, Teresa and Juan Soto, walk with Emmanuel to a play area near their home in Richmond, Calif.

As they arrive, the boy is excited to get there.

But the wheelchair he uses gets stuck on the playground's floor. The surface is made of a type of loose wood fill that is in compliance with the new laws.

Emmanuel, however, really can't move. So, his father lifts him out of his wheelchair and places him on a slide.

It's a scene the family has played out before.

Teresa Soto fights back tears remembering that when Emmanuel was 2 years old, he quickly figured out that he couldn't play with the other children here.

"He told me, 'Mommy, I'm not able to play with the kids. Let's go,' " she recalls. "I said, 'Why? You wanted to come here.' He said, no, let's go, Mommy.' "

In fact, there's not much that Emmanuel can do by himself at this playground.

There are no ramps to take him onto the play structure, just a transfer system, which is made of a series of platforms and shallow steps.

A transfer system "basically requires me, if I'm a child who uses a wheelchair, to wheel up alongside of it, drag myself out of the wheelchair and transfer onto a platform," says accessibility consultant John McGovern, "and then ascend until I get to the fun part of the playground that I can use."

"It's a pretty exhausting process," McGovern says, "and not a lot of kids with physical disabilities can do it."

Making Play A Civil Right

McGovern represented public parks and recreation departments on a federal regulatory negotiation committee.

The body helped draft accessible playground requirements that went into effect in March 2012.

He and others close to the process tell NPR that the committee made some compromises based on cost.

One of them was allowing those troublesome loose surfaces as an alternative to better, but more expensive, smooth surfaces. Another one was not requiring ramps on smaller playgrounds.

Still, McGovern says he's glad the regulations moved from voluntary guidelines to requirements under the nation's civil rights laws.

"To me this is no different than a public parks and recreation professional standing out in front of a recreation center and saying we don't allow women in here, or we don't allow Hispanics in here. It's exactly the same concept."

Meeting Playground Requirements

Richmond Parks and Landscaping Superintendent Chris Chamberlain says the city is technically in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — at most of its playgrounds, and overall.

Many city playgrounds, like the one in the neighborhood where the Soto family lives, have those loose wood fiber surfaces, Chamberlain says.

The surfaces, he says, meet the ADA requirements for wheelchair access. But he acknowledges a gap between the regulations and individual needs. This particular surface may be too difficult for a child like Emmanuel to use.

"To expect [Emmanuel] to be able to wheel into, or even get pushed into and up to a transfer station and expect [him] to get up to and into the structure, that's what I'm talking about. That's the gap," Chamberlain says.

Teresa Soto is disappointed in this park and the rest of her city's playgrounds. When she can, she drives Emmanuel to a park in another town, 45 minutes away.

That's not always possible, though. In the mornings, she works cleaning houses. Later in the day, she cares for Emmanuel's sister, a teenager with Down syndrome.

Soto says she knows what she'd like to see in her neighborhood.

"I would like someone to tell me that in this place your son would be safe, that he would be in a fun place, with access for him," she says.

Richmond recently won $7 million in grants for city park projects.

Chamberlain says the city is planning better play areas that will help children with more disabilities and more typical children play together.

Julie Caine of member station KALW contributed reporting from Richmond, Calif.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It became a requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act last year: Playgrounds have to offer help to children with disabilities so they can play alongside their peers. Such playgrounds can cost several hundred-thousand dollars. And whether kids with disabilities are able to enjoy this new civil right might depend on where they live. In his second of two reports, here's NPR's Robert Benincasa.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: Teresa and Juan Soto are walking to the playground near their home in innercity Richmond, California. Juan pushes their 3-year-old son, Emmanuel, in his wheelchair. As they arrive, the boy is excited to get there. Emmanuel, who was born with spina bifida, enters the play area in his wheelchair, but the chair gets stuck on the playground's floor, which is made of a kind of loose woodfill. His dad has to lift him out of his wheelchair, and place him on a slide.

There's not much that Emmanuel can do by himself at this playground, and he's not alone. Despite new federal requirements that playgrounds accommodate children with disabilities, many of the nation's playgrounds still aren't friendly places for kids with physical challenges. Emmanuel's mother fights back tears remembering that when he was 2, he quickly figured out that he couldn't play with the other children here.

TERESA SOTO: (Through translator) He told me, Mommy, I'm not able to play with the kids. Let's go. I said, why? You wanted to come here. He said, no. Let's go, Mommy.

BENINCASA: Soto is disappointed in her city's playgrounds. When she can, she drives Emmanuel to a park in another town, 45 minutes away. That's not always possible, though. In the morning, Soto works cleaning houses. Later in the day, she takes care of Emmanuel's older sister, a teenager with Down's syndrome.

I told Richmond Parks and Landscaping Superintendent Chris Chamberlain about Emmanuel. He says there's often a disconnect between what the law requires and what a child needs. Even city playgrounds that do comply with ADA requirements might not accommodate every child.

CHRIS CHAMBERLAIN: To expect her child to be able to wheel into, or even get pushed into, and get up and into the structure, that's what I'm talking about - that's the gap.

BENINCASA: Chamberlain says the loose, wood fiber surface in Soto's neighborhood park does meet the standard for wheelchair access. Other city playgrounds, which don't have ramps leading into play equipment, also comply with the ADA. But for Emmanuel Soto, the playground's design doesn't work. With no ramps for his wheelchair, he'd have to use something called a transfer system to get onto the play equipment.

JOHN MCGOVERN: Which basically requires me, if I'm a child who uses a wheelchair, to wheel up alongside of it, drag myself out of the wheelchair, and transfer onto a platform; and then ascend until I get to the fun part of the playground that I can use.

BENINCASA: That's accessibility consultant John McGovern.

MCGOVERN: It's a pretty exhausting process, though, and not a lot of kids with physical disabilities can do it.

BENINCASA: McGovern represented public parks and recreation departments on the federal advisory committee that helped draft the new playground requirements. He and others close to the process tell NPR that the committee made some compromises based on cost. One of them was allowing those troublesome loose surfaces as an alternative to better, but more expensive, smooth services. Another was not requiring ramps on smaller playgrounds. Still, McGovern says he's glad the regulations moved from voluntary guidelines to requirements, under the nation's civil rights laws.

MCGOVERN: To me, this is no different than a public parks and recreation professional standing out in front of a recreation center and saying,"We don't allow women in here," or "We don't allow Hispanics in here." It's exactly the same concept.

BENINCASA: For her part, Teresa Soto knows what she'd like to see in her neighborhood.

SOTO: (Through translator) I would love someone to tell me, at this place, your son will be safe. He will be in a fun place that is accessible for him.

BENINCASA: Richmond recently won $7 million in grants for city park projects. Chamberlain says the city is planning better play areas that will help disabled children and more typical children play together.

Robert Benincasa, NPR News.

GREENE: And with your help, NPR is compiling a national database of accessible playgrounds. To find one near you or to add one to our database, visit npr.org/playgrounds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.