Advocates seek more options for disability accessible playgrounds

For Terri Hamrick-Oeschger and her son, Tyler, the playground at Lake Waterford Park in Pasadena was their special hangout.

Tyler had tricothiodystrophy, a degenerative disorder that causes sensitivity to the sun and other problems. He especially liked to play on the swings at the playground, which had safety harnesses so he didn’t feel like he was going to fall out.

Tyler passed away in 2011, but his mom remains a passionate advocate for the construction of accessible playgrounds.  To Hamrick-Oeschger and others, playgrounds like Lake Waterford Park are exactly what such a playground should look like.

They should have rubberized surfaces that can easily accommodate wheelchairs.

There should be harnesses on the swings and places for children to climb, if they are able to, parents said.

And most importantly, parent Dan Ramsey said, they should be a place where children of all abilities can play together.

“This place is definitely good for all of us,” said the Severna Park man, who has a 12-year-old son with autism along with two daughters.

The Anne Arundel County-owned park also has the Freedom Field, which is specially adapted for children in wheelchairs and with other disabilities. The Challengers baseball team for children with disabilities, which Hamrick-Oeschger supervises, plays there. An adaptive track will be added next year.

“You need accessibility and a place for them to play where they won’t get hurt,” Hamrick-Oeschger said.

The federal government took on the issue in 2010, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was updated to include playgrounds. The standards cover playgrounds owned by state and local governments, public and private schools, private child care facilities, restaurants and residential developments.

Playgrounds built after Jan. 26, 1992 must provide an accessible route to get onto the ground, a range of accessible equipment and an accessible surface beneath that equipment.

But do the standards go far enough? Not everyone thinks so.

Lake Waterford is one of only 34 inclusive playgrounds in Maryland, according to a database maintained by Mara Kaplan, the founder of Let Kids Play! The Pittsburgh-based firm works with manufacturers, nonprofits, parks and other organizations on how to create accessible play areas.

A truly inclusive playground goes well beyond the federal law, said Tom Norquist, senior vice president for product development and marketing for the playground equipment manufacturer GameTime.

“ADA is based on minimums,” said Norquist, marketing committee chairman for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Kaplan put it another way.

“The ADA gets you to the playground,” Kaplan said. “It doesn’t always let you play.”

First real update

The updated standards were two decades in the making.

The ADA was signed into law in 1991. But Dave Yanchulis, a spokesman for the United States Access Board, the independent federal agency that develops accessibility guidelines and standards, said the board first developed the guidelines for play areas in 2000.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces ADA regulations, adopted the guidelines in 2010. They became mandatory two years later.

“This represented the first real full-fledged update,” Yanchulis said. “We were kind of going in a vacuum when it comes to play areas. There really wasn’t a whole lot of data on what the requirements should be.”

Because the law applies to new and upgraded playgrounds, it can be hard to paint a clear picture of how many playgrounds are accessible in a particular area, Yanchulis said.     

But Kaplan said Maryland was ahead of its time on this issue.

Her firm keeps an online directory of inclusive playgrounds, which allows parents to search for public playgrounds in their area. Of the 34 in Maryland, 23 of them are at state parks.

“Maryland had a very early start, and did a whole series of accessible playgrounds about 10 years ago,” Kaplan said.

Norquist said that was around the time Boundless Playgrounds, a Tennessee-based company that builds inclusive play areas for children and adults with disabilities, began to build playgrounds in Maryland and Delaware. Lake Waterford is one of the Boundless playgrounds.

Wendy Scarborough, recreation supervisor for adaptive and inclusive programs for the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks, said the playground was designed in the early 2000s. Among other features, the playground was designed with several rubber paths for easy access, Scarborough said.

Such playgrounds are often used as a model for others, Norquist said.

“For every good inclusive playground like that, there are three or four that spin off,” he said.

Eric Black, a sales representative for Frederick County-based Playground Specialties Inc., said Baltimore began building accessible playgrounds after receiving federal grants for public housing about a decade ago.

Black estimated he’s worked on hundreds of such playgrounds in the 15 years the company has been around.


knew this was going to come about, and we wanted to be on the forefront,” Black said of the ADA changes. “Baltimore was one of the first.”   

Not truly inclusive?

But Kaplan argues that while all those new playgrounds may be ADA-compliant, that doesn’t mean they are truly inclusive.

For example, she said, many accessible playgrounds are of the “post and platform” variety, and some of them rely heavily on ramps. They can look a little “babyish,” Kaplan said.

And they aren’t necessarily best for children with autism, a developmental disorder that’s growing in numbers and is not addressed by the ADA—which primarily deals with wheelchair accessibility.

“When you have a post and platform type playground, you don’t have a lot of movement,” Kaplan said. “Children with autism need to experience movement.”

Marcia Price of Severn has a son who is on the autism spectrum. He’s 15 now, and plays baseball, soccer and tennis with the Challengers. But she remembers struggling to find an appropriate playground to take him when he was younger.

“A lot of the time, kids with autism don’t know how to interact with other kids,” Price said.   

Kaplan prefers to see play areas with structures like zip lines, swings and climbing equipment, as well as the right surfacing. Synthetic surfaces are preferred over wood chips, which are ADA-compliant, but not as easy to maneuver around for children with mobility issues.

Children with disorders such as autism also sometimes put the chips in their mouths, Kaplan said.

But synthetic surfaces are more expensive. Kaplan said synthetic surfacing runs between $12 and $15 per square foot, while non-synthetic surfacing costs between $2 and $5 per square foot.

“Sometimes, the playground equipment can cost as much as the surfacing can,” she said.   

To parents like Hamrick-Oeschger and their children, the cost is worth it.

“People with special needs need a place to call their own, and Lake Waterford is one of those places,” she said.

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