Feature Article - November 2021
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Nonstop Inclusion

Playgrounds Lead the Way to Inclusion in Parks, Pools & Beyond

By Joe Bush


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.