Building Bodies, Building Awareness
Shane's Inspiration Playgrounds in Los Angeles
By Shay Bapple
fter spinal muscular atrophy caused the death in 1997 of their 2-week-old son Shane Alexander, Scott Williams and Catherine Curry Williams, with the help of friend Tiffany Harris, led the drive for equality for all children with disabilities who wanted an opportunity to play. Today, barriers are being torn down all over Southern California and beyond, allowing children with disabilities to be on a level playing ground with the rest of their peers.
Shane's parents understood that if their son had lived and been confined to a wheelchair, he would have been at a disadvantage when he wanted to play in local parks and playgrounds with other children his age. As a result, Harris and Catherine Curry Williams decided to create a nonprofit organization dedicated to integrating children with and without disabilities in a playground with equipment that all children can use and easily access. In 1998, Shane's Inspiration was founded, and it has since raised millions of dollars to create over 40 universally accessible playgrounds. The first, "Shane's Inspiration," is located in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and according to Harris, it is the busiest of all 300-plus playgrounds in Los Angeles County.
"We started looking at all of the playgrounds in L.A. County to see if they complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and although some requirements were met, they still didn't allow for accessibility for children with any type of disabilities," Harris explained. "We researched why children with disabilities weren't integrating with other children in the area and found that there weren't enough fun things for them do, and getting them to a place that they could play was too difficult."
Harris said that their first playground in Griffith Park helped Shane's Inspiration come onto the scene with a bang and was a huge success, inspiring other parks to follow suit.
"Griffith Park was supposed to be the one and only of its kind," said Virginia Hatley, lead playground designer at Shane's Inspiration. "The response was so overwhelming that we were asked to build more like it. There is no reason that all playgrounds shouldn't be built this way."
Of the 40-plus playgrounds that Shane's has built so far, two recent Los Angeles-area projects include the Everychild Foundation Universally Accessible Playground at Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles and the Anthony C. Beilenson Park playground in Van Nuys.
The Everychild Foundation playground was developed after several doctors, nurses and therapists decided they wanted a playground that was accessible to the public and for their patients. With cerebral palsy being the most common disability among their patients, the playground was designed to accommodate these types of children, with an emphasis on handrails, guards and large steps for children who have problems with stability.
The project at Beilenson Park originated from a community priorities and options session, which included community leaders expressing what they wanted in their playground, including specific equipment, colors and the theme of the park. According to Hatley, each playground features a different theme that makes it unique. Because the Beilenson playground is by a lake, a beach theme was a logical choice.
The public's response has been overwhelming, and Shane's Inspiration has won several awards, including "Best Playground" from Los Angeles Magazine's "101 Things to Shout About," an L.A. Parent Award for Outstanding Playgrounds, an Architectural Landscape Design Award from the L.A. Business Council, the 12th Annual Access Award from L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and the L.A. County Commission on Disabilities, and California Parks and Recreation Society's State Wide Facility Design, Special Purpose Award.
Shane's has a professional advisory board that aids in developing playgrounds to fit the needs of any type of disability. The board helps by making decisions to have additions in playgrounds like handrails for children to get out of their wheelchairs to and from equipment.
"The playgrounds have soft ground surfaces and typical playground equipment like swings and slides and areas where children can get away from activities." Hatley said. "It is pretty much standard equipment that is configured in unique ways."
To ensure their projects are successful, Shane's Inspiration does more than build the playground. Harris and her team also wanted to find out where they needed to raise awareness in the general public. To help promote equality and the usage of the parks, forums and seminars were held asking community members questions about their perceptions toward children with disabilities. Harris found some of the responses very surprising.
"We found a level of bias against children with disabilities while doing these educational presentations," Harris explained. "Many misconceptions were out there. We heard comments like, 'They could be violent,' or 'They carry diseases.'"
After explaining the fallacies in these attitudes and seeing a need to change the general public's perception, Shane's Inspiration began implementing programs to help children and parents of children without disabilities to understand the realities of a child with a disability. Field trips were created that allow fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to mingle with special-needs children. Now, Shane's delivers field trips to more than 2,600 students a year, and it has worked with 50 different L.A. County schools.
A typical trip consists of a question-and-answer session where the students are surveyed so that presenters can get a feel for their attitudes toward disabilities and a child with those disabilities. Afterward, the students are taken to a universally accessible playground, where they are paired up with a child with a disability and are allowed to play with them for several hours. Afterward, the students meet up with the presenters and discuss what they have learned and how their perceptions have changed.
"Children thank us for teaching them to not say 'yuck' and eliminating their biases," Harris said. "It's amazing to watch children go from trepidation to playing to friendship with the handicapped children. We hired educators to help develop this program all year round."
Shane's also supports other events, such as Shane's Club, held on the last Saturday of each month, when disabled children come out to a park with their family and play. Children have snacks and live entertainment that includes face painting and arts and crafts. Fundraisers are also held like this year's "Tea by the Sea" and the Shane's Inspiration Gala to raise money for the parks.
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