Feature Article - February 2016
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Better Together

Inclusion Strategies for All Facilities

By Joe Bush

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey of 2013, almost 8 percent of American children up to the age of 17 have a disability. The vast majority of them are between the ages of 5 and 17, prime playing and socializing years that for many are bereft of both because of the lack of easily accessible inclusive places to interact, play, and engage in recreational and sports activities.

The situation is changing because of organizations like Shane's Inspiration and Unlimited Play that not only help communities understand the physical and mental importance of exercise and stimulation, and interaction and socialization for their disabled members, but that also help with fundraising and project management.

Some manufacturers are recognizing the need for specialized equipment designed for playgrounds, pools, climbing facilities and fitness facilities. Professional staff who care deeply for the work are applying their expertise to use science in the pursuit of providing enjoyment and improved health and quality of life for those with disabilities, children and adults.

Establishing a Baseline

Almost 8 percent of American children up to the age of 17 have a disability. The vast majority of them are between the ages of 5 and 17, prime playing and socializing years.

The U.S. Access Board is a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through leadership in accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards for the built environment, transportation, communication, medical diagnostic equipment, and information technology.

It established guidelines for recreational facilities and play areas as an addition to the American with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. When the ADA took action in 1990, there were no special requirements for recreational facilities or play areas, said Peggy Greenwell, the board's training coordinator and expert on recreation accessibility, in a recent interview. (Greenwell retired from the organization in December.)

Greenwell said the board's initial focus began with a review of the guidelines already established for other buildings and facilities, examining how they might be applied to recreational facilities.

"Throughout the process, there was concern that providing access might change the different experiences that recreational elements and facilities provide," she said. "For example, people questioned how you could make a roller coaster accessible or a slide in a playground accessible without significantly changing the experience.

"The end result includes guidelines that require designers and operators to provide access to a variety of accessible elements and reflects a careful balancing of the various needs and interests. A minimum level of access in recreation facilities was established with room for innovation. The Board is committed to maintaining the accessibility guidelines for recreation facilities that will reflect changing technologies and innovations in the future."

Building on Success

Many of the players in the burgeoning recreational accessibility "industry"—the organizations, manufacturers and programmers—insist that simply meeting ADA mandates is not enough. Much of their work is with municipalities, and one of their initial challenges is convincing community officials and residents that money should not be an obstacle.

It's a matter of the heart and social justice, not the pocketbook, according to Jayne Greenberg, district director of physical education and health literacy for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

"We have to do it," she said. "It's not a choice of 'Will it cost more money?' It's doing the right thing. If playgrounds are going to be built, they have to be built with inclusion in mind."

Greenberg's purview is all physical education, not specifically inclusive, for a huge public school district. Since 2000, the program has not only extended into the communities it serves—the district's accessible golf is played on public courses—it has innovated into areas beyond adapted activities like climbing and playground use and into adapted sports, such as wheelchair basketball, power soccer (special wheelchairs have bars that "kick" the ball), goal ball (for the visually impaired, using a ball with bells inside) and wheelchair tennis.

"Any sport can be modified," said Greenberg, whose program also partners with Special Olympics. "As long as the students are engaged and active, that's our goal. Sometimes the equipment doesn't have to be modified at all.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of opening up your mind and saying the student is capable of learning how to use this equipment. We have wellness centers with kids using treadmills and they program their own and they go at it."