Despite the fact that 92 per cent of Canadians agree that accessibility for people with disabilities is a basic human right, playgrounds across the country continue to leave children on the sidelines with design and maintenance practices that are not fully inclusive.
Playgrounds develop important social and emotional skills that can have life-long effects. When children with or without disabilities play, they learn to solve problems, experiment, generate ideas, invent and build relationships with peers. Exercise also encourages both mental and physical health and reduces the risk of more than 25 health conditions. According to Physical & Health Canada, 38 per cent of Canadian children with a disability almost never get physical exercise after school compared to 10 per cent of typically developing children.
This statistic is one reason why playgrounds should offer a range of materials and activities that allow children and their caregivers to interact with the environment, said Thea Kurdi and Dawn Campbell, while presenting a seminar at IIDEX on the importance of inclusive play spaces.
“Children with disabilities are also at high risk of social isolation, are often excluded from play and spend more time alone watching television and playing on the computer,” said Campbell, teacher and senior coordinator of marketing and partnerships for the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program at Rick Hansen Foundation.
“53 per cent of kids who have disabilities have zero or only one close friend.” Report from Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.”
At the same time, kids are more likely to play with children with disabilities if the activity hardly interferes with participation. Inclusive play spaces help solve this problem.
During the course of their seminar, the women outlined what makes a playground accessible, putting a plan in motion, common mistakes and how these spaces benefit the whole community. Much of the discussion referred to the newly revised Let’s Play ToolKit, a Rick Hansen Foundation resource for schools and the general public, which looks beyond the national symbol of disability — the wheelchair — to also focus on cognitive and sensory disabilities and vision and hearing loss.
While children without disabilities learn valuable lessons on inclusive playgrounds (everyone has differences and similarities), accessibility also allows parents, grandparents and all members of the community to enjoy access.
As it stands, one in seven Canadians has a disability and that number is expected to rise to one in five by 2036. This statistic doesn’t account for those who haven’t identified as disabled on the census or those with temporary disabilities. Many don’t identify because they feel like a burden or prefer not to view themselves as being unable.
But according to Kurdi, associate at DesignABLE Environments Inc., asking what percentage of the population is disabled is kind of a “nonsense question.”
“Over the course of one’s life there are a range of different needs,” she said. “Think about people in your life who are aging, those with vision and hearing loss, arthritis and loss of stamina. There are all kinds of disabilities we don’t consider.”
Right now, Canadians over the age of 65 are a larger percentage of the population than those under 14. Every day, 1,000 people turn 65 in Canada. This “huge shift” in demographics is one reason why a new minister of sports and persons with disabilities has been tasked to compile new legislation for Canadians with disabilities. More caregivers within this population will be accessing playgrounds in the future — if they are even able to.
Plan in motion
For Campbell, it is “heartbreaking” when she hears about a parent council spending a lot of time and money on a new playground that ends up being inaccessible. To avoid this oversight, there are a number of resources to help clarify the path to inclusivity.
A CSA course is available to help understand tactile requirements of designing, installing, inspecting and maintaining accessible play space, while the Let’s Play ToolKit lays out a set of steps to put a plan in motion.
They include, planning and research, collecting bids, determining a budget and final plan and creating a funding plan, which could stem from sponsorships, grants and fundraising events.
Throughout the process, hold a workshop to gather creative ideas and consult with disability organizations as well as the people who will access and enjoy the play space — children, their parents and caregivers. Use caution when working with a play space designer, said Kurdi. Everyone hasn’t been educated on how to properly approach accessibility.
What an accessible playground looks like
To help clarify what accessibility looks like, a minister of sport and persons with disabilities has been tasked with developing and introducing an ambitious and new federal accessibility legislation. Also, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is milestone legislation, but does not outline how facilities can make playgrounds more accessible. Much is expected for this ever-evolving area of research. Kurdi and Campbell laid out some ideas of how inclusivity materializes on a playground, using information from the Let’s Play ToolKit.
Accessible walkways: Getting to the play space is also important Walkways should connect directly to the space from buildings, sidewalks and parking lots. Play happens along walkways and pathways, and attention should be paid to the design and maintenance of the route, including places to sit. If provided, parking areas should allocate at least one space for people with disabilities (3.7 metres wide and 7.5 metres deep, including a 1.2 metre-wide walkway) with a safe, curb-free route to the main walkway.
Play surfaces: Many existing play spaces have been built with non-accessible surfacing materials (pea gravel and sand), excluding many children and caregivers with mobility challenges. Wood chips are not very accessible but rather bumpy and uneven, so make sure they are broken down to provide a smoother surface. Ruts that are not smoothed out in play surfacing create inaccessible areas. Fall surfacing should also be maintained to adequate height to work with access points on equipment and around the play space. Seventy per cent of all playground injuries are related to falls to the surface. Equipment also poses problems. For example, plastic slides have replaced metal slides on many playgrounds; however, the plastic creates static that can blow out a cochlear implant for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Equitable access to play: There should be a mix of both ground surfaces and transfer benches so people can transfer from a wheelchair to a slide. A site does not need to be level to make it wheelchair accessible. To add interest and stimulation, use existing slopes and excavate the site to create a shallow depression or add a slight slope to flat terrain. Slopes should not be at a steeper grade than five per cent to remain wheelchair accessible. Elevated sandboxes allow everyone to play, whether it is a child in a wheelchair or an adult who cannot bend down. Features many playgrounds haven’t considered are generational swings and teeter-totters, which help adults participate with a child and allow more than one or two people to participate.
Entry points: Include entry points anywhere along a border to a play area. This is provided through flush access with a maximum of ½” drop from the adjacent path onto the play surface. Some school districts are working towards adopting an equipment installation standard to provide universal access. Also, examine what equipment is on the market. Merry-go-rounds now provide level entry points so everyone can play on them.
Colour and tactile features: These are great for safety, and not only help people find the play space and know where each step starts and ends, but also help navigate items like hand rails.
Sensory gardens and stand-alone features: Children on the autism spectrum often have sensory disabilities and a need for quiet, personal space. Consider adding a sensory or sound garden with drums, chimes and bells, or a rock climbing area where kids can play independently when they need alone time. Sensory gardens with scented flowers and plants are also a way of finding features for those with vision loss.
Accessible resting and drinking areas: Rest areas are covered by the AODA, which doesn’t give much advice on how to achieve them. Make sure the bench is colour-contrasted so it can be found on the path. It should have a backrest and armrest for those who need help standing up or sitting down. Benches and seating areas are important components of a play area. They offer important social spaces for students, caregivers and teachers.
Top photo courtesy of the Rick Hansen Foundation