New federal requirements that are part of the Americans With Disabilities Act went into effect last year and are changing the face of playgrounds, requiring they be accessible to children with disabilities.
NPR is looking at this from a national perspective, while KUAR’s Michael Hibblen has more on what Little Rock is doing so that all kids can get the chance to play. You can hear his report above.
Standing within a baseball diamond off Cantrell Road in Little Rock, Peggy McCall points to the smooth surface of soft tiles, which are made from recycled tires.
“You can see that the bases are painted," said McCall, founder and Director of the Miracle League, which allows children and adults with disabilities to play baseball. She notes there are no raised surfaces typical on a regular baseball field.
"There’s no dirt or grass, which would be tripping hazards. Wheelchairs and walkers wouldn’t work on that so well. And so, what I call gear, it makes it easy and safe for all the kids to play and not get hurt. If they do fall, nothing’s going to break or get injured.”
The non-profit allows a broad spectrum of disabled children to play baseball. McCall created it wanting all children to have such experiences despite any limitations.
“If you have a diagnosis, you get to play. So our spectrum is broad. Many kids that you see out here, you wouldn’t know that there’s anything wrong with them, that they have a disability, but that’s a lot of the autism, asperger spectrum kids and we have kids that are blind, totally blind," but able to play, McCall says, thanks to balls that beep.
McCall says the hand-laid field cost about $500,000 to build and was a gift to the city of Little Rock thanks to a local rotary chapter and other donations.
It opened in 2006 and is quiet right now, since it's too hot to play ball, but a new season begins September 7th.
McCall says she typically has about 200 kids each Saturday, many in wheelchairs racing around the bases.
“They go real fast and we encourage that because the kids love to go fast.”
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola says among the city's 59 parks, a growing number are accessible for children with physical challenges.
Inclusive designs have been evolving over the last several decades. The city recently dismantled one specially designed playground in Murray Park that was about 30 years old and Stodala says was falling apart. But he said they’re making plans to replace it.
“We met with a variety of the organizations in town on what’s called a firefly field. It’s a national model and our park designers are working with them, as well as some of our own designers to build a new disability or barrier-free park in that general area," Stodola said.
"We haven’t quite decided whether we’re going to rebuild it right in the same location or whether we’re going to move it down the road a little bit.”
More accessible areas will be coming in the years ahead. The requirements that went into effect last year mandate that new public play areas include wheelchair-friendly surfaces and equipment to help those with physical challenges move around.
Next door to the ballfield used by the Miracle League is a small playground.
“This surface is much more squishy," said McCall as she walked through it. It’s an example of what’s recommended today.
“It’s the elevations and the steps, so those are really easy to deal with, but it does take a special surface. I know that engineered fiber, which is wood chips, is allowed and that truly doesn’t really work with kids, especially in a power chair, because the power chairs are so heavy, they bury down in that and then they get stuck. So when people build these playgrounds, they really need to pay attention to the surface,” McCall said.
The playground also features specially designed swings with extra back support that kids can’t fall out of. It also features a swing that someone can use while sitting in a wheelchair.
“This tailgate drops down and the chair just rolls up here," McCall said while show how the swing works. "This drops down and they drive up, lock their chair down and put this tail gate up and then you can swing. And many of our kids use swinging in therapy a lot for core strength development.”
It's all part of an effort to give disabled children experiences and opportunities that are available to others.
In addition to expanding playgrounds, similar ball fields are also being planned or considered elsewhere in Arkansas. McCall says fundraising is underway in Springdale, while Conway, Hot Springs Village, Jonesboro and El Dorado are also considering building them.
Find an accessible playground in your area using the box below. It's a community-edited guide to accessible playgrounds, so you can contribute to the listing if you know of an accessible playground that is not mentioned.