A good friend of mine is a national expert in creating recreational experiences for children of all abilities, including those with some limitations. She’s been working in this field for most of her professional career, and tells an interesting story about what got her started. It all began with a young girl in a wheelchair who sat next to a park watching her friends play on the swing set; but, of course, she couldn’t join them because the swings weren’t designed to accommodate her special needs. My friend, a mother with a child of her own, would see this girl at the park regularly, and there was nothing she could do to help that little girl join her friends on the playground. Needless to say, there’s a great deal more to this story. I’ve heard her tell it a half-dozen times, and every time she tells it, she brings tears to the audience’s eyes. It’s a powerful and emotional story.
But this story isn’t about that little girl. Her story tells us a great deal about how we think about community assets, and about showing everyone—young and old, male and female, healthy and weak—the same level of respect when designing public spaces and community resources.
I’m writing this on a swing set at Soroptimist Park. Soroptimist Park is a small park, about a short city block in each direction, located in a residential area of the city of Wayne. In June, the Wayne Parks and Recreation Department held a “community build”, a community engagement process where up to a hundred volunteers came together to build the slide and swing and jungle jim and walking trail that is now located at Soroptimist Park. It’s a great project, and Wayne should be applauded for engaging so many different partners in the project. The local golf leagues, the Rotary Club, a holiday women’s club, the local schools, all raised money to support the project. CVS contributed financially, raised money locally and provided help for the community build. It was quite a project.
But this story isn’t just about Soroptimist Park; and it isn’t just about the community build activities. You see, this wasn’t any ordinary project. This involved designing and constructing playground features that could be used by children of all abilities, facilities that are referred to as providing universal recreation. Translated, that means the facilities are designed in such a way that their use can accommodate anyone, no matter what their physical abilities…or limitations. No special swings or slides or scramble bars for children who may have mobility challenges, or limited use of their arms or legs. The facilities are designed so the use is seamless for all of the children, all of the time. It shows respect for all people, no matter what their circumstances.
Wayne is using its investment in Soroptimist Park to help establish policy regarding future park and public space investments. But not every community thinks about this issue as comprehensively as they should. Oh, sure, communities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; accommodations are made to create access to buildings, or curb cuts offer people easier ways to cross the street; but the Americans with Disabilities Act establishes a minimum standard of accommodation; and far too often, meet only that minimum standard without giving any thought to how to create a universal experience, so that people aren’t singled out because they’re “special”.
What’s going on in Wayne is quite telling about us as a society, how we can, with a little extra effort, make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to share in the resources of a community. And too often, we don’t do that; we choose to make the minimum investment, enough to meet the basic requirements of the law and nothing more. We can do better.
I started this story by saying this wasn’t about that little girl. Maybe it about her. Because maybe that little girl is your mother, or your sister, or your daughter…or you. And you deserve respect, too.