Accessible playgrounds open world of fitness for disabled youths

Emma Brun closes her eyes against the bright sun and makes a grunting sound as a smile breaks across her face.

For most children, playing on a swing set is no big deal.

It is, however, for 4-year-old Emma, who has cerebral palsy. The disease severely affects her motor skills and speech, meaning she can’t sit in a traditional swing or zip down a slide on her own.

“Unfortunately, unless builders, commissioners and the folks that are actually building parks have a child or niece or nephew with a disability, they just never think about it,” said Roger Kenney, the director of Athens Inclusive Recreation and Sports, a nonprofit that provides sports and activities for people with disabilities.

Fortunately for Emma, somebody did think about it.

This day at Lithia Springs Recreational Park, Emma swings in a device that looks a bit like a cross between a child’s car seat and the seat from a carnival ride.This day she is no different than any other pre-schooler.

“It levels out the playing field for her,” said her mother, Traci Brun, a medical consultant from Austell. “Here, there’s nothing she can’t do.”

In 2010, the Atlanta-based Resurgens Charitable Foundation donated more than $74,000 to help build the all-abilities playground at Lithia Springs.

It’s doing the same thing for other children like Emma across the metro area. Since 2001, the foundation has given more than $600,000 for parks and playground projects, which are usually done in partnership with local governments and coalitions.

“The foundation is all about promoting an active lifestyle among people of all ages and abilities,” said Dr. Kay Kirkpatrick, the president of the foundation and co-president of Resurgens Orthopaedics. ‘What we’re trying to do is to get people moving in whatever way they can.”

Kim Tissier, a pediatric physical therapist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said all-accessible playgrounds mean wider ramps, adaptive swings and activity panels placed low enough that a child in a wheelchair can reach them.

Their presence allows youths with disabilities to practice their motor skills and get those sensory experiences they wouldn’t normally get, she said.

The foundation recently donated $75,000 to the Chastain Park Conservancy to help build an all-accessible playground. The work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“We feel as a regional playground, it’s our duty to make the park accessible to all who want to visit,” said Rosa McHugh, the interim executive director for the conservancy.

Roughly 5 percent of the state’s children ages 5 to 17 have a disability, according to census figures.

The money comes at a time when many counties and cities continue to tighten their budgets, making it difficult to build the more expensive all-accessible playgrounds. For example, a regular belt swing costs about $68. Special adaptive swings can cost up to $382, depending on the size and design.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that public parks provide access to people with disabilities. But some families say it can still be difficult to move around.

“What we really want is for civil engineers, the architects and everyone involved with designing access to think about usability,” said Valerie Meadows Suber, the public information director for the Georgia Council On Developmental Disabilities. She said it would be helpful to have signs, information or instructions letting users know the best place for access to, say, a playground.

Pittsburgh-based playground consultant Mara Kaplan agrees.

“The ADA is about getting there,” she said. “It’s not about usability. So you can get there but the equipment can still be somewhat inaccessible.”

Kaplan, who works with playground equipment manufacturers and communities, said inclusive play is a growing segment in the industry. One of the biggest issues — and costs — is the surface. Many playgrounds use wood mulch, which while complying with ADA, is hard for some people to navigate — for example, if they’re using wheelchairs — and must be maintained and replaced on a regular basis, she said. But Kaplan estimates that synthetic surfacing, such as rubber or artificial turf, can add as much as $10 more per square foot.

Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from accessible playgrounds.

Michael Mills, a father of three, was left paralyzed from the waist down at 16 when a drunken driver slammed into his car.

Although Mills is pretty athletic and once climbed Stone Mountain on his hands and knees for charity, the Covington man can’t play with his children on many public playgrounds.

One day while visiting a park in Cobb County, however, Mills, a claims representative at the Social Security Administration, was elated to find an accessible playground.

“My kids would say, ‘Hey, Dad, come play, and I couldn’t,” Mills said. “The park was like a godsend. This was new to me, to be able to play with my kids. Honestly, I almost cried.”