Defining the Differences
Twenty-five years ago, on July 10, 1990, President George Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark legislation that extended civil rights protection to people with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government services, public transportation, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and telecommunications.
ADA not only made curb cuts and wheelchair buses commonplace, it changed how playgrounds and parks are laid out and designed.
Prior to ADA, there was no guarantee that a person using a wheelchair could get to a playground. ADA is now the law, and all new and renovated parks have an accessible path that leads to the playground. Nothing can be blocking that path so that a person who is blind can know they will not run into anything.
ADA Compliant Playgrounds
ADA ushered in new play equipment. All structures (of a certain size) must have a transfer station. A transfer station is designed to enable a person using a wheelchair to transfer out of his chair on to the structure and then, if her arms are strong, she can scoot backwards to the slide and go down. The result of the transfer station is that there is an easy climbing challenge on almost every playground structure, ensuring that there is a range of challenge. The law also regulates how many play activities are up high and how many are at ground level, creating a market for ground level play equipment.
For a long time after the main ADA law was passed, the regulations for playgrounds were just guidelines. Thus, communities started to use the term “ADA Compliant Playground” to tell people which playgrounds were built with these guidelines. In 2015, the ADA playground guidelines are law and must be followed in all new and renovated playgrounds making this term outdated.
Accessible playgrounds go beyond ADA to ensure that everyone can get to and through the playground. Accessibility is about travel, movement, and approach or entry. So a playground that is accessible is one that is easy for a person who uses a mobility device to maneuver to and around.
The elementary school playground shown above is an example of a typical accessible playground. There are ramps that enable a person using a wheelchair to get to the top of the structure. Along the route of the ramps, there are activities that are within the reach range of the person. One of the first accessible pieces of equipment that was created was a glider. The glider allows a person with a wheelchair to roll right on and then move the glider along with their friends.
An inclusive playground is one that has an aim to make it not only accessible, but to encourage and enable children to engage with one another. Ramps, in and of themselves, do not lead to engagement.
When one looks at an accessible playground, it is obvious that it was designed with people with special needs in mind. When one looks at a well-designed inclusive playground, it is not as obvious. It is designed to meet the needs of children with a variety of abilities – children who use wheelchairs, have autism, or are typically developing.
Equipment designers are redesigning equipment so that it meets the needs of anyone coming to the playground. The Unity Dome by Playworld is an example. There are many different ways to climb to the top, some easier than others. Children are encouraged through a large opening (which is large enough for a child using a wheelchair to roll through) to play on the inside. The rope climber acts as a transfer station enabling a child, who uses a wheelchair and has a strong upper core, to transfer and climb to the top. On the outside, there are sensory panels for children who are seeking a tactile or auditory experience.
In order for an inclusive playground to be successful, it needs to be accessible; however, an accessible playground is not always inclusive. The demand for inclusive playgrounds continues to grow and as a result there will be even more new pieces of inclusive playground equipment designed from which communities can choose.