On accessible playgrounds

From the New York Times: “The first time I buckled Ruth in a swing she was 18 months old, but looked younger from the emaciating effects of cerebral palsy.Born in Uganda and quickly abandoned, she had spent much of her first year in an orphanage, which sent her to Maine for six months of physical therapy. Friends signed up to host her.

“My husband, Dana, and I were interested in adoption and received permission to take Ruth on weekends to see what caring for her was like. That’s how we found ourselves standing under a canopy of backyard trees, buckling Ruth into a red, plastic baby swing.


Unable to sit, crawl or even lift her head, Ruth shrieked as she soared through the air, her patent-leather baby shoes shivering the low-hanging leaves. I imagine she felt free of her captive body for the first time. A decade after that cool October morning, I’ve never heard a sound so joyful. We officially welcomed Ruth into our family of three young children in the winter of 2005. Over the years, swinging remained among Ruth’s favorite activities — along with whizzing down the slide at our local playground. But as she grew, it became increasingly difficult to find play areas designed with equipment Ruth could use.

“One day, when our daughter was about 5, we visited a New Hampshire children’s museum with my cousin and her two children. Spotting an oversize swing with a high back and sides to cradle Ruth’s lanky body, I asked her, “Want to swing?”
Ruth stiffened her whole body, arching against the straps of her wheelchair as her eyes darted toward it. Only after wheeling my daughter through the difficult bed of bulky wood chips, I saw that the swing was missing its safety harness. “I’m sorry,” I said, using simple language she would understand. “The swing is broken.”

Ruth clenched her eyes and wailed. Knowing how many ordinary pleasures were cut off from my daughter, I was angry that something as common as swaying through the air on a hot summer day was also unreachable.

Unfortunately, our experience is often repeated at playgrounds across the country. Summer is prime playground time for staying active, building confidence and making new friends. But many older parks lack smooth surfaces, low-to-the-ground platforms and ramps to accommodate children with additional needs. A recent federal law requires newly built or altered playgrounds to include these elements along with specialized equipment. But finding them is hard.

To make it easier, National Public Radio recently introduced “Playgrounds for Everyone” to create the first comprehensive national database of accessible playgrounds. Anyone can contribute to the online registry, which includes photos, a search bar and features to look for. After one year, the site included 1,920 such playgrounds. New York City, with 827 as of this writing, currently has the most. The Chicago metro area, with 109, comes in a distant second.

Desired fixtures include everything from ramps and grab bars to musical equipment, textured surfaces, safety fences and fragrant gardens. The more playgrounds people add to N.P.R.’s registry, the easier they will be to find. Hoping to find one near me, I recently typed my Midcoast Maine address on the site’s search bar, only to find the closest accessible park was 76 miles south in Durham, N.H. I’m sure our daughter would have loved it. Sadly, in 2011 — one year before the law recognizing playground accessibility as a civil right took effect — Ruth died unexpectedly in her sleep.

To find an accessible playground or to add yours to N.P.R.’s registry: apps.npr.org/playgrounds/.


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