Ask an Advocate: School Playground Accessibility



Lisa's son at the special needs playground at Cedar Beach, Allentown PA (not a school playground)

The question: I need ideas to try and get our school to have the playground accessible for Brandon, who is in a wheelchair. Brandon has trouble accessing the playground equipment, and as his parent I want him to be able to play with his peers. How can I try and get the school to help me out with this?

First, the short answer is that the playground needs to be accessible for your child. Assuming the school receives state and federal funding, if Brandon cannot access the playground, he is “being treated differently than his non-disabled peers” (Office of Civil Rights complaint) and they have some ADA issues. So where to begin?

It would be lovely if the school would just (duh!) do the right thing and make the playground and some of the equipment wheelchair-accessible. My guess for the reason they haven’t is because of money or because no one has asked them to before. So that is where I would start — asking his teacher and principal about accessing the playground and see what kind of response you get. I’m also assuming that you just want the playground accessible with some of the features that will help Brandon socialize and interact with his peers. You are not asking for one of those million-dollar special playgrounds, so you’re being reasonable.

Special needs playgrounds are all the rage right now. Many communities are putting them in, as they understand the value of play and socialization and how it excludes and segregates our kids when they cannot participate. But those projects are a huge undertaking. Play is valuable, and being able to recreate and socialize are components of IEPs. If your son has socialization goals or gross motor/PT goals on his IEP, I would ask the team how he can work on those during recess if he cannot access the playground.

I certainly would advocate for this and push for it — at the same time being cautious and taking a collaborative approach. Recently I heard of a situation where a child needed a very expensive service/accommodation and he got it. However, the school made it very well known (to everyone) that “there are no field trips this year because we needed to use the money for student’s service instead.” Yeah, that. It was a crappy thing to do, and you certainly wouldn’t want to open up your child for that kind of chastising. “Sorry kids, we had to close the entire playground because Brandon wanted to use it and we can’t afford the upgrades.” So I would try to keep conversations upbeat and collaborative.

I would try to get some information on what kind of modifications would have to be made and how much it would cost. While it shouldn’t be your responsibility, you may want to contact local Lions, Rotary and groups like that and ask them all to chip in $1,000 or $2,000 to collectively cover the cost. If Brandon just needs a sidewalk or ramp, call local concrete contractors and see if they will do it at cost or as a donation. Ask your school personnel if they need you to write a letter for them to pursue some type of grant. In other words, offer to help to the best that you are able to. Bring in other parents in your situation at your school, if there are any, and work together. Research online as to how communities do get their special needs playgrounds funded and see if you can replicate it.

And if that doesn’t work, you have to decide how far you want to take it. I wouldn’t start out this way, but you can always contact attorneys and the media or your local legislator and see if that changes anything. But like my Nan always said, You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Lisa Lightner is a Chester County, PA mom of two. This post was adapted from the blog A Day in Our Shoes, which she co-authors. It provides support, resources and advocacy services for parents of children with special needs.

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