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Mother's dedication levels the playground for disabled children

Sunday, July 23, 2000

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Six years ago, Amy Barzach saw a little girl in pain, and it changed her life.

Playing with her two young sons at a playground in West Hartford, Conn., Barzach saw a 4-year-old girl in a wheelchair parked nearby.

The girl had tears in her eyes as she watched the other children run, jump and cavort on slides, swings and other playground equipment.

The girl couldn't maneuver the wheelchair over the wood chip surface, and ramps designed for disabled children didn't go to the play areas where most kids wanted to play.

"This was an 'accessible' playground," Barzach recalled. "But she couldn't play there at all. And I thought to myself, 'This is America. Why can't there be a place where kids of all abilities could play together?' "

A few months later, Barzach's youngest son, 9-month old Jonathan, suddenly developed a rare illness and died. Remembering the little girl she had seen at the playground, Barzach determined to create a truly accessible playground for all children as a memorial to her son.

The result is "Jonathan's Dream," a 25,000-square-foot, fully accessible playground in West Hartford where children with disabilities can mingle with able-bodied children in the world of play. Barzach and her husband, Peter, raised $300,000 for the playground, which was built by 1,200 volunteers.

At Jonathan's Dream, ramps allow children in wheelchairs to easily reach the play equipment and keep up with able-bodied peers. The playhouse doorway is wide enough for a wheelchair, and the sandbox is actually a sand table. There's a wooden glider swing in the shape of a boat that's large enough for two children in wheelchairs, and six other kids as well.

The overwhelming success of the playground -- some families drive for hours to get there -- convinced Barzach that she had found a new calling. In 1998, with a $500,000 grant from Hasbro Corp., Barzach created "Boundless Playgrounds," a national nonprofit group dedicated to helping communities create play areas accessible -- and appealing -- to all children.

So far, the group, which provides technical assistance and fundraising advice to communities and other groups, has helped build 12 playgrounds. Forty-four more are in the works across the country. The largest, a two-acre playground in Los Angeles, will open later this year.

Boundless Playgrounds hopes to build 1,000 "universal" playgrounds, which Barzach said would put one within "reasonable" driving distance of every child in America. Last month, the organization took a giant step by signing a $1 million agreement with Maryland to build 10 playgrounds, making Maryland the first state to commit money for universal playgrounds.

Mark Shriver, the Maryland legislator who helped spearhead the agreement with Boundless Playgrounds, expects other states to follow suit.

"We've gotten overtures from other states as the word has spread," Shriver said. "A lot of the play equipment that is out there in playgrounds just isn't designed to support kids with disabilities."

Although it will have been 10 years since passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act on Wednesday, most U.S. playgrounds are only minimally accessible to the five million American children who have some kind of physical, developmental or emotional disability, experts say.

New or altered playgrounds must offer some type of handicapped access. Generally, however, that means providing ramps "leading to nowhere" or "transfer decks" that force physically disabled children to leave their wheelchairs and use handholds to pull themselves up to the elevated parts a play structure, Barzach said.

"For these children, their wheelchair is their legs, so it's like leaving their legs behind," Barzach explained. "Then, if they can manage to pull themselves up to the top, they find themselves just sitting there while other [able-bodied] kids run around them."

By contrast, at least 70 percent of the play equipment in a universal playground is accessible to disabled children, putting disabled and able-bodied children on an even par, said Jean Schappet, head designer for Boundless Playgrounds. The playgrounds are designed to be so fun that all children will be drawn to them -- not just disabled kids.

"Children who are developing normally will still find the challenge and rigor that they need in their play," Schappet said. "Boundless' says it all.... And the stories are pervasive of the number of [disabled] children who have made developmental breakthroughs in play environments when all the therapy in the world couldn't get them there."

Universal playgrounds typically cost $75,000 to $150,000, about 15 to 25 percent more than regular "accessible" playgrounds.

"It can be the most expensive playground in a community," Schappet said. "But the long-term benefits are so great. And we're also not saying that there needs to be one of these playgrounds on every corner."

Mara Kaplan, a Highland Park mother of two, has a 7-year-old boy who is disabled and uses a wheelchair. But she says there is only one park in the Pittsburgh area -- in Moon -- that offers real play opportunities for her son, and the handicapped accessible section of that park is across the street from the "regular" playground. That makes it hard for Kaplan, who also must pay attention to her 3-year-old able-bodied daughter.

"My son loves it, but it is not an easy place for a family to visit," Kaplan said. "I'm sure they had the best of intentions, but it just doesn't work."

Much of the problem appears due to the fact that the disabilities act is vague about what makes a playground "accessible."

Under the act, playgrounds with more than 20 pieces of equipment must have ramps; smaller playgrounds need only have transfer decks.

But there's no federal guidance on how to take those requirements and create a playground that is fun for all children.

"There is an obligation for access. But how that is met is not clear in the absence of guidelines. That is the hole we are hoping to plug," said Dave Yanchulis of the Access Board, the independent federal agency that enforces accessibility standards for federally funded facilities.

"Plugging the hole" can be time-consuming. After two years of work, the Access Board recently completed more specific accessibility guidelines for play areas.

They are under review by the federal Office of Management and Budget.

If the OMB approves, the guidelines then will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice, where officials will determine whether to make them part of the federal standard for accessibility.

In the meantime, communities are free to make their playgrounds comply with the letter and spirit of the disabilities act.

Bruce Padolf, manager of architecture for Pittsburgh parks, said the city is in the fourth year of a five-year program to modernize its 150 playgrounds.

Playgrounds have been made handicapped accessible, which means they have ramps and/or transfer decks, as well as surfaces that allow wheelchairs to move around more easily, Padolf said.

But he said there are some things the city has decided it can't do, such as putting in solid-seat swings that provide needed extra support for disabled school-age children.

"It's too dangerous to the other kids. They're hard and could really hurt if they hit a kid in the head," Padolf said.

"There are no guidelines for accessibility," he said. "You just have to use good design sense. And I'm sure that as soon as we complete our renovation program, they'll come up with new guidelines."

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