Guest Column - January 2011
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Play for All
Thinking Outside the Ramp

By Mara Kaplan and Ian Proud

It's time to rethink ramps.

Since the 1970s, parks and recreation departments have been obligated under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide outdoor play equipment that is accessible. That means there must be an accessible route through the play areas so children with disabilities and their caregivers have a pathway to reach all the various play components.

Until now, making playgrounds ADA-compliant meant adding ramps. But accessibility means so much more than making sure wheelchairs can reach the upper decks of a conventional playground design. To truly meet the recreational needs of children with disabilities and their families, inclusive play must be a fundamental consideration beginning at the playground design conceptualization stage. Only then will we create playgrounds where children of all abilities can fully enjoy the benefits of play.

The task may seem daunting—especially for smaller entities that may not be aware of all the available options. However, when imaginatively designed and expertly executed, playground equipment can provide an outstanding sensory experience that not only meets the play needs of children with disabilities, but appeals to all park-goers.

Why Play?

Before examining ways to make playgrounds more inclusive, it's important to remember the purpose of play. Play should be an enriching experience that gives children a chance to exercise their bodies and imaginations, solve problems, challenge their limits and enjoy interacting socially with their friends.

Many playground designs are based on the notion that ramps are the answer because they meet the ADA requirement that playgrounds be easy to approach, enter and move through. But being accessible doesn't necessarily mean the equipment offers the best possible play experiences for children with disabilities. The assumption is ramps will be utilized by children who use a mobility device and by children with disabilities who want to reach higher areas. However, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Data Accountability Center, only 2 percent of children with disabilities use a mobility device, and certainly not all children with disabilities want to access high structures.

Consider this scenario:

  • A caregiver pushes a child in a wheelchair up a ramp.

    Problem: The adult gets the exercise, not the child.

  • At the top of the ramp, there are play panels installed to meet the ADA regulations.

    Problem: Many of these play panels are simplistic, so they aren't challenging, nor do they provide a meaningful social experience.

  • After the child uses the play panel, the caregiver has two choices: turn around and push the child in the wheelchair back down the ramp; or transfer the child out of the chair and put him or her on the slide—assuming the child has enough trunk control to go down the slide.

    Problem: The child is left stranded at the bottom of the slide, while the caregiver remains at the top with the wheelchair. The caregiver must run down the ramp to get to the child as quickly as possible before another child comes down the slide.

In addition to children who rely on mobility devices, what about those children who have other disabilities such as autism, intellectual or language delays, or visual or hearing impairments? How do ramps help them meet the goals of play? The simple answer is: they don't.