As schools work to break down barriers for students, staff members and visitors with disabilities, officials also should look beyond school buildings and consider upgrading their playgrounds to make them more accessible.
In 2000, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, also known as the Access Board, issued guidelines for bringing playgrounds into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The guidelines apply to facilities that are newly built or altered.
According to the guidelines, playgrounds are made up of play components, which are defined as elements “designed to generate specific opportunities for play, socialization and learning.” This includes activities such as rocking, swinging, climbing and sliding. Play components can be at ground level or elevated.
Here are some of the guidelines:
At least one of each type of play component provided at ground level must be on an accessible route. The accessible route must connect all entry and exit points of accessible play components.
At least 50 percent of elevated play components must be on an accessible route.
The number and variety of ground-level play components required to be on an accessible route also depends on the number of elevated play components. This is to ensure that sufficient play opportunities exist for children with disabilities who do not want to transfer to elevated play components.
Beyond the minimum
Advocates for persons with disabilities say that schools need to do more to improve the design of playgrounds so that they are accessible to all students. Boundless Playgrounds, a non-profit organization that helps schools and city parks build universally accessible playgrounds, recently broke ground on such a park next to P.S.199 on the West Side of Manhattan in New York City.
“Schools have been very diligent in the last two decades about bringing inclusion to the classroom, but where do the children go during recess?” asks Janet Ralston, development and special projects coordinator for Boundless Playgrounds. “Most schools have not addressed accessibility on playgrounds, which is where children really learn their place in the world.”
Often, Ralston says, a school will add accessible elements to a section of the playground with equipment and activities that are less appealing to children, an approach she characterizes as installing “a ramp to nowhere.” The ramp creates the illusion of accessibility, but may end up frustrating children with disabilities even more because once they go up the ramp, they find no equipment appropriate or safe for them to use.
Ralston suggests that before schools upgrade their playgrounds, they solicit input from early-childhood-education experts on the most appropriate and effective play equipment for children, and seek out information from physical therapists and occupational therapists on which activities would be most beneficial for children with disabilities.
Most of all, Ralston says, schools should ask for advice from those with the most expertise in the field of play: children.
“You want to have elements that provide novelty and complexity, that continue to sustain children's interests,” she says.
Maximum slope for a ground-level accessible slope.
Minimum length, in inches, of landings at the top and bottom of each ramp run.
20 TO 28
Required height of ramp handrails, in inches, from ramp surface.
0.95 TO 1.55
Required diameter or width, in inches, of ramp handrails.
Source: U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, “A Guide to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas.”
The Access Board guidelines on playgrounds are on the web at www.access-board.gov/news/playguide.htm.
The Boundless Playgrounds website is www.boundlessplaygrounds.com.