Playgrounds Lead the Way to Inclusion in Parks, Pools & Beyond
The 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) didn't start the recreation industry's attempts to make play and fitness available to all abilities. One manufacturer made a ramped play system in 1971, for example. But organizations on both ends of the industry, suppliers to end users, have evolved to the point that it's common to hear them say that ADA-compliant recreational spaces are not enough. One playground manufacturer's blog post breaks down the three types of playgrounds—ADA compliant, accessible and inclusive—in order of commitment to including as many children with all types of disabilities in experiential fun and exercise.
"(ADA) was protecting the civil rights of everyone with a disability," said Kent Callison, marketing director for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based play equipment company. "It says to everyone, 'If you're going to have a public space, it 100% has to be accessible by everyone.' That's a sweeping order backed by the power of the Department of Justice.
"It's important we don't lose sight of how tremendous that was. It gave everyone a new starting point, a new baseline. If the baseline is every area has to be accessible, what's next? To make it truly inclusive. Don't just make a portion of the area accessible; make the whole space inclusive.
"I don't want anyone to think ADA wasn't enough; it was huge. What we've done since then is take the foundation ADA gave us and built on it."
Now, there is awareness that the principles that guided an inclusive play space inside a larger park area can and should be expanded to apply to the whole park. More than just being able to use a recreational space, do people with a disability feel welcome? And there are people in the industry who are expanding inclusion to areas that have nothing to do with physical and mental abilities, like income, race and gender.
Inclusion on the Beach & in the Park
The new generation of recreational inclusion includes Damian Buchman, a victim of childhood cancer that left him with an ambulatory disability at the age of 13 who is the founder and CEO of The Ability Center. Buchman's 10-year-old nonprofit's RampUp program helps existing facilities become inclusive, and it made waves by turning a popular Milwaukee area beach into the nation's most accessible beach, first in 2015 with beach wheelchair rentals, and then in 2020 with an eight-foot wide mat allowing wheelchairs to get right to the water.
To Buchman, making facilities and areas more inclusive doesn't have to be a major project, and the solutions are easy to see. RampUp helped people who can't pedal bikes with their feet by making hand cycles available at one of Milwaukee's most-used biking areas, Veterans Park. It made ice skating sleds available at a popular ice rink that previously couldn't be used by folks without the use of their legs.
Buchman said his unique perspective as a person who's had 27 knee replacement procedures, who walks about a quarter the speed of people with healthy legs, makes him consider things like avoiding wood surfaces at Bradford Beach because wood has a jarring rumble-strip feel for the wheelchair user.
The ramp is not in compliance with ADA said Buchman, because ADA didn't take into account such things as comfort, both physically and mentally. "It's not ADA-compliant because ADA-compliant is not true inclusion," he said. "ADA compliance would have told us we have to build a 5.5-foot ramp. At 5.5 feet wide, we wouldn't be able to roll past each other, especially in two big beach wheelchairs, so it's an 8-foot-wide ramp. It's not a switchback ramp because that looks like it's for people with disabilities.
"We wanted everyone to feel like this is nothing more than a grand entrance to the beach. It's a gradual sloping curving ramp that takes you down the beach and enters into 200 feet of seasonal matting to get you to the water.
"We could have purchased 5.5-foot-wide mats for that, but we got 6.5-foot-wide because we didn't want anyone to have to step off the mat or move or get out of the way because someone in a wheelchair was coming. We created an experience that wasn't just about ADA compliance, but an inclusive experience that makes people feel like, 'You thought about me.' A woman told me, 'Now when my friends invite me to Bradford Beach, I can go.'
"It wasn't easy to access. It made her feel uncomfortable. It's not about whether they can get in or on or to, it's whether they feel welcome, wanted and comfortable. What's their perception when they get there?"
Buchman said good intentions are not enough, citing a nearby inclusive playground with no accessible restrooms. Or an inclusive playground inside a park that has only minimum accessibility surrounding the playground. The center's new goal is to make the 18-acre Wisconsin Avenue Park the nation's most universal.
He said you have to consider not just the individual with the disability but also the caregivers by their side. What about the disabled parent whose able-bodied child plays at the universal playground but wanders away? How easy can the disabled parent follow, chase or search outside the playground area?
"We just keep building playgrounds in parks," said Buchman. "'This is the area you can play on, forget the rest of the park, it's not for you.' How do we create universal parks and not just accessible playgrounds?"
Goals for Wisconsin Avenue Park include a clubhouse with family caretaker bathrooms, fully accessible bathrooms with adult-sized changing tables, and charging stations for mobility devices and electronic devices.
"So that your time there isn't limited because you don't have access to these things," Buchman said.
Buchman said organizations that question whether universal design and creating a welcoming environment is cost-effective should know that 26% of Americans report a disability. Not only are those people customers, in many cases so are their caretakers.
"If you aren't doing anything to serve that one individual with disabilities, you're not getting the other individuals as customers either," he said. "We also have to provide an experience of value, or else why would they be your customer? Why bother if I don't get the same value as everybody else?"
Inclusion at the Pool
Another newer voice in inclusive recreation is Kate Connell, the aquatics program supervisor for Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department. Connell is a former yoga instructor who's always infused her activities with themes of equality, social justice and diversity. In her current role, inclusion means helping lower-income families be able to enjoy recreation with a scholarship program and advocating for LGBTQ comfort at facilities and events.
Connell said her goals are to analyze and adjust pool policies and procedures, including staffing practices, to better serve all members of the community.
"We try to do a lot of things intentionally designed to remove barriers from participation on the programming side that really get people into activities but also trying to remove any resistance people might have to just freely come and use the pool," she said.
"We're always trying to be really mindful of what things are in the way for folks and continuing to add to that process events and more inclusive policies and thinking outside the box."
Connell thinks about things like, is online-only registration unfair? How many languages is right for job postings? How do you train staff for rescues of people who don't speak English, or are autistic, or challenged visually or auditorily? How do the terms "diversity" and "equity" and "implicit bias" and "inclusion" relate to swimming?
"A big part of diversity is not knowing all the answers," she said. "There isn't a wrong way, but there are ways to make it more inclusive or not further alienate people. How do you feel confident enough to try to problem-solve instead of writing it off saying, 'I don't know what to do here'?"
The department's swim lesson curriculum reaches out to after-school and tutoring programs; Connell said half of all group lessons are given for free to kids qualifying as low-income. Staff training includes role-playing related to privilege and bias for customer service situations involving different income levels, abilities, cultural backgrounds and genders. "We train specifically on the topics independently and also make sure they are baked into everything we do," said Connell. "Not one approach or the other. We have common understanding of 'What does it mean for people to be welcomed and included in the building?'"
Lifesaving certifications don't properly address different backgrounds and abilities, said Connell. "A reaction from someone who has autism may be different if there's airhorns and whistles, and if someone is in their space, their reaction might look really different than someone who doesn't," she said.
This approach has paid off in increased use of the facility and its programs from first-time users and demographics with low usage, Connell said. Marketing has increased and adapted, she said, and relationships with social service agencies have strengthened. There are events like Pride at the Pool and Autism Swim Night.
"We try to be a good neighbor," said Connell. "The work we're doing is happening outside the pool, it's rippling through the community and that's really rewarding. People are realizing this is where we're going and trying to be on the right side or doing the right thing.
"There's an appetite for these things and people are more open than ever. There seems like there's a commitment overall in the recreation industry to make headway with these things and that's great."
Miklos Valdez, a director at aquatics adviser Counsilman-Hunsaker, said it's hard to separate strong inclusive facilities from strong facilities overall. It's a sign of a well-run and successful operation, said Valdez, and obvious tangible signs include easy entrances to the pool such as ramped entry, beach entry, chairlifts and handrails; attention to detail in changing areas, like plenty of space for mobility devices and caregivers; no features that need users to climb to a platform.
Aside from design and equipment, programming inclusion can be improved with tweaks to lessons and staff training. There are organizations that provide adaptive aquatics certification courses, he said, which should be added after basic swim lesson training.
"Most programs have a lot more emphasis than they used to on adaptive aquatics or having inclusive classes or dealing with people with specials needs so it really helps to have that base-level training for your staff to make sure they're at least trained in that base-level swim instruction," Valdez said.
"Everything we're doing nowadays we're trying to figure out how to include as many people as possible. How can we make our aqua pool fitness program as inclusive as possible? How can we get as many people as possible on a floating attraction?
"It's your neighbors, your cousins, your aunt and uncle, your brother. Everyone needs these types of programs that may be some kind of consideration to feel comfortable to access your pool. The idea is everyone has the same access."
Innovations in Inclusion
The manufacturing side has embraced inclusion, and its innovations have helped the evolution from compliant to accessible to inclusive. The shift is to thinking about the products' users and their caregivers first. A Playworld blog post cites 10 features of an inclusive playground, one whose purpose is not immediately obvious because it serves so many abilities:
- Unitary surfacing
- Social play spaces
- Calm areas
- Sensory components—equipment that engages the tactile, auditory, visual, vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems
- Maneuverable routes
- Various levels of challenge
- Equipment zones
- Forward-thinking play equipment
- An inclusive "coolest thing," or the playground's main attraction
Jill Moore, an inclusive play specialist with a Minnesota-based playground equipment company, said that when her company works with clients, no aspect of inclusion is left behind. Community education is foundational, with invitations to advise going to park and rec people, community members, landscape architects—people who need to understand the theory and reasoning behind what's being created.
"They're essential in planning and going to drive what's needed," said Moore. "On the flipside of that, we work closely with our clients to ensure we're properly educated when creating this piece of their community. In many instances, we help them find resources to assist with their grant writing. Sometimes that's directing them to the proper research study, sometimes that's education on different surfacing materials, sometimes it's helping them define the ability demographics of their own communities.
"It's a constant conversation of learning from our clients and presenting them with what we know. We take feedback from challenges people with disabilities experience in the play space, and we try to find meaningful solutions from the micro level of product to the macro level of the entire play environment itself."
One expert said he can't really say that inclusion in industry thinking is on the uptick because it's really been a hot topic for the past decade. Jim Bassi, sales director with a Canadian splash play manufacturer, said ADA is focused on mobility, which is why it is the bare minimum. But people with full mobility have other disabilities that need addressing in the play space.
"When I talk inclusion, it's really about inclusion for children of all abilities while still providing a level of challenge for all abilities," said Bassi. "The goal isn't to make sure that every child can use a specific piece of equipment but that there's something for every child in the entire solution to be adequately challenged and enjoyed. That's definitely a challenge when you take into consideration budgets and cooks in the kitchen and the different competing priorities to provide a solution."
Bassi said it's important to go beyond mere participation as well. Being able to use equipment and move freely between them is also a form of minimum.
"Creating an inclusive design doesn't mean the elimination of risk," he said. "Children look for risk, not just to develop but for play, and if they don't find it in a designed play space they're going to go find it someplace else, maybe a place without the safety combinations that are put into place in a play area.
"If we eliminate risk, we're eliminating the play value these solutions have. It would be disappointing if we ended up bubble-wrapping everything."
Callison's company has continued innovating as well, with its latest work on making net structures more welcoming to all abilities. "I think people did a really good job of adding ground-level play activities around structures so everyone can be included," Callison said. "What we've been doing is adding transfer platforms to net structures. It's one thing if you're in a mobility device watching your friends climb from the perimeter; it's quite another experience when you're in the middle of it all and you're able to engage in the same type of play." RM