At the 53 playgrounds in Durham, most children can enjoy all the structures available, including slides, swings, and see-saws galore. For Victoria Facelli and her daughter, Elizabeth,* though, this is not the case. Elizabeth has cerebral palsy, and Facelli continuously reckons with how her daughter is excluded from the community in ways that she did not anticipate.
As Elizabeth enters her childhood years, this exclusion is very noticeable on playgrounds.
“It’s really limiting, and that really sends a message to my kiddo about whether or not she’s welcome, and whether or not Durham is proud that she lives here,” Facelli says.
While all new or renovated playgrounds must adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, these requirements are outdated at 30 years old. An ADA-compliant playground might have an accessible entrance and transfer stations—spaces where a child in a wheelchair can pull themselves onto a play structure. But even with those features, many kids will still find themselves relegated to certain parts of the playground, unable to enjoy most of the play features.
Furthermore, while each playground has to have one structure that is accessible for children with disabilities, that could be something as small as a tic-tac-toe board. And if an entire playground is surrounded by mulch, it makes the entire structure hard to maneuver for someone in a wheelchair. Of all the playgrounds in Durham, only one listed on the city’s Parks and Recreation website has an accessible swing: Drew/Granby Park.
Facelli and her daughter often go to accessible parks in Raleigh, such as Sassafras All Children’s Playground at Laurel Hills Park. But, when it was closed for months during the pandemic, the two couldn’t even go there.
“That’s the problem with having these tokenized spots of inclusivity … when they’re closed, we’re stuck,” Facelli says.
Why does this happen? For one, says Betsy MacMichael, the executive director of First In Families of North Carolina, it’s the cycle of inaccessibility. The group is a non-profit dedicated to helping people with disabilities and their families be engaged in their communities,
When a space is inaccessible for children with disabilities, their families don’t access those spaces, and these children are not seen. Able-bodied families in the spaces then tend to forget disabled children exist, so then, when largely able-bodied planners are creating new parks, they often don’t keep accessibility in mind, and the cycle continues.
“In these small neighborhoods, when there’s an accessible swing, sometimes the parents will take it down with the excuse that it’s a big swing that takes up space and ‘no one uses that one anyway,’” MacMichael says. “It takes a while for this to become the norm.”
Additionally, Durham’s playgrounds are not large, regional spaces. Many of them are small neighborhood parks, and while the number of them means they’re accessible geographically, it also means they are rather basic play structures.
Durham’s parks department sends out an evaluation survey periodically to Durhamites, asking them what kinds of play structures have been working, which have not, what they want to see in playgrounds, and more. Facelli says she applauds this effort, but asks: what about the minority, left out in a system that rewards the majority?
Earlier this year, Facelli emailed the Durham city council and parks department, telling her and Elizabeth’s story and asking that the city celebrate Disability Pride Month—in July—by tending to the needs of the children with disabilities within the city.
“As we are needing to tear down unsafe structures—like what’s happening at [Rockwood in South Durham, where the youth structures are being renovated]—and replace them, can we replace them with accessible structures?” Facelli asks. “We need to restructure the way our playgrounds are so as to not segregate disabled kids from non-disabled kids.”
“Ultimately, it’s the will of the leaders who have funds for the parks to say, ‘Look, discussion time is over. It’s time to make the damn parks accessible.’”
Facelli acknowledges that, in many of the accessible playgrounds she’s visited, features are beneficial for all kinds of children. But at the rare playgrounds built for children with disabilities, the structures are often overrun with non-disabled kids.
“It’s because those playgrounds are cool,” Facelli says. “Kids love an accessible zipline and an accessible swing. It becomes a problem of having to educate these kids to keep those spaces open for children with disabilities.”
Wade Walcutt, the director of Durham Parks and Recreation, is relatively new to the role. He moved to Durham and assumed the job in October of last year. Facelli says Walcutt, and the city council, have been receptive to her ideas on how to make more accessible spaces in Durham.
“It was great to hear from her. It started the conversation of, not just with Rockwood and other parks we’re renovating, but what can we do to make sure that we’re all on the same page and have accessibility and inclusion at the top of mind in the future?” Walcutt says.
Specifically, with the new playground under construction at the Wheels Family Fun Park (which the city bought last year), the city is looking to adopt accessible concepts. Facelli says she hopes that other people with different disabilities will speak up to the parks department about what they need.
“I had the experience of hearing from someone that an accessible playground was accessible in some ways, but their kid had a visual impairment, and the color of the steps in the playground was so similar to the ground that they couldn’t see them,” Facelli says. “That’s something I would’ve never thought about, because that’s not my experience with my child.”
Wallace says he will continue to work with Facelli in order to figure out more tangible ways to design spaces for kids with disabilities like Elizabeth. The goal, he says, is to eventually adopt basic standard operating procedures for every single renovation and building project the department works on—and to look at them through a social equity lens. Recent discussions estimate that these basic guidelines will be ready to celebrate Disability Pride Month 2022.
Wallace says he’s proud of the geographic diversity in playground improvement, and is quick to discuss the extensive list of renovations in playgrounds throughout the past 10 years. Further, he points to new projects. including the “highly inclusive” Hoover Road playground in east Durham. But, he concedes, there is work to be done.
“We also want to establish a strong connection with … other inclusive groups of people with different abilities so they become asset groups for us when we’re thinking about park design,” he says.
MacMichael says this kind of proactive initiative-taking is needed, and is adamant that it should not be on those affected by the cycle of inaccessibility to advocate for the necessary changes. In order to break the cycle, she says, those in power must step up and finally begin implementing ADA requirements as a bare minimum, and more robust accessibility standards.
As MacMichael talks about her previous experiences, both in her professional life and as the mother of a now-29-year-old with disabilities, it’s evident in her voice that she’s tired.
“We shouldn’t have to work so hard,” MacMichael says.“The people who need it shouldn’t have to be advocating to make us all get it right. Ultimately, it’s the will of the leaders and the city of Durham who have the funds for the parks to say, ‘Look, discussion time is over. It’s time to make the damn parks accessible.’”
*Not her real name
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