Why Don’t We Ever See Children With Disabilities at the Playground?

Don't call me specialAbout a week ago, I was supervising my daughters as they played on a playground.  This was a new playground for us.  It was pretty typical.  A ground cover of wood chips, slides, bars to climb across, walls to climb up, etc.  They also had six swings, two for babies and toddlers, two traditional and, less common two adaptive swings.  These swings are typically blue or red, look like an upright reclining chair, and have four chains connecting them to the cross bar; two in the front and two in the back.  They are designed to support children who do not have the size, core strength or muscle tone to sit on the other swings. Also rare for playgrounds were the rubber walkway/ramps that wove through the wood chips.  Each ramp lead to a piece of playground equipment.  I took brief notice of these features, but I didn’t consider them something worth pointing out to the children.  I was wrong.

The Question

After fifteen or twenty minutes, my older daughter came to me with a question.  “Daddy, how come we never see children with disabilities at playgrounds?”

As usual, I responded, “Good question.  What made you think about that?”

“Um, I don’t know…I mean, well, Jamie (a first grader at her school who has a disability that impacts his gross motor skills such as running, jumping and climbing), and other children who have disabilities would be able to play on this playground, but there aren’t any children here, or at other playgrounds we go to.”

“I’ll tell you what,” I began.  “I can’t speak for children with disabilities or the caregivers who would take them to a playground, but I can speak as your father and a former teacher of young children with disabilities.  Going to a playground with children is not easy for many adults, especially when their children are very young or need to be constantly watched.  Playgrounds are great places for children to play, unfortunately it’s really hard for adults.  Think about the challenges I used to have bringing both you and [your sister] to the park.  Remember we had to worry about diapers, snacks, water, naps and bigger children.  Now that you’re older we don’t need to worry about that or you can take care of them on your own.  Also, parents of children with disabilities have told me that they feel like their child doesn’t belong…even if there are ramps and swings designed for children with disabilities.  Children are not nice to their child.”

She shuffled through the wood chips for a few seconds without speaking.  With her head looking down at the wood chips she said, “That’s mean.  I would be nice.  I think Jamie would like this playground.”  She then walked away and got on the swing.

I sat on a bench and continued thinking about her question and reflection on my response.  She was right.  We have been to some pretty amazing playgrounds over the years with adaptive play equipment.  Despite the accommodations, we rarely see children with disabilities playing.  I asked myself, “was/is there anything more I can do?”…I concluded that what I was doing was a good start.

Inclusion involves three components: Providing children the access to the opportunity to play on playgrounds; allowing children to participate to the same extent as their peers with the use of accommodations such as ramps and adaptive equipment; and supplying systems of support for the child to be included in meaningful play.  If a playground, like the one we were playing at provides access and opportunities to participate, then our role, and any other advocate of including children with disabilities is to be part of the support system.

How You Can be Part of the System of Support

There are three recommendations I have for advocates, particularly those with children:

  1. Educate yourself and your child. There are few picture books out there that I feel do a nice job framing the inclusion of children with disabilities.  Most picture books present children with disabilities as “others.”  They often are ineffective at humanizing children.  One book I, am my children have enjoyed is Don’t Call Me Special.  You can educate yourself using any of the resources below and by reading some of my previous blogs for parents and professionals.
  2.  Normalize the terms and concepts related to disability. Explain that disabilities are only as significant as the environment that the people who are disabled are active in.  We are all disabled by our contexts in one way or another.  In most cases our conditions are so common that accommodations are not unusual.  Think about eye glasses, step stools, adjustable chairs, ramps, closed captions, and so on.  These mitigate disabilities.
  3. Humanize disability by promoting quality and meaningful inclusion in the locations you and your child frequent. Think about the community center, library, museums, schools and of course, playgrounds/parks.  To a certain extent these locations offer access, maybe accommodations, but rarely systems of support.  Adults and children can be part of those systems of support.

If you are interested in more information.  Check out some of these resources or contact me.

Disabling segregation

Special Quest

Franklin Porter Graham Child Development Institute

Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exception Children Recommended Practices