Playground accessibility for parents with disabilities


I’m lucky. I live in a place where there are playgrounds everywhere. There are two within a very short walk from our place, and probably half a dozen or more within five minutes’ drive, including a very large and pleasant park, the “flagship” park of the area.

But every single one of these playgrounds has accessibility issues. I think we’re running zero for zero in terms of reasonable accessibility for kids with disabilities. That’s a huge issue; but in this post I’m talking about parents.

The most noticeable issue for me is walk distance and seating. Flagship Park is a lovely spot for my kid, but I have to park the car a long schlep from the playground area. The closest parking area to the playground is up a steep hill. The parking with the flatter walk is a good 250 m away from the play area. Choosing whether I exhaust myself on a slope or on the flat isn’t much of a choice.

And seating is crap. Why are there almost never shaded seats close to, and facing, a playground for young children? Public seating is usually hideously uncomfortable – but why does it have to be? Benches don’t have arms to help people with arthritis or muscle weakness get back up independently. Seating is placed in full sun or only in part shade, so photosensitive people are out of luck. And this is if there is seating at all – many playgrounds have no seating, or have one bench far away from the playground and pointing in the wrong direction.

Flagship Park is the only playground I can think of that has a paved path to and around the playground.

However, even that access pathway is only to the edge of the playground – the playground itself is deep soft sand, so if a child needs immediate physical attention, a person who uses a wheelchair (or other walking aid) isn’t going to be able to get in. Other playgrounds have no paved access at all.

Fencing is another accessibility issue. When you have a slow-moving parent and a fast-moving toddler, a well-fenced playground is a wonderful thing, removing the need to hover over the child. As a handy side effect, it also keeps unleashed dogs out.

Accessibility to playground equipment is slightly complicated to upgrade. One option for actual playground access could be to use high quality rubber surfaces instead of sand. And it has the pluses of not concealing broken glass, shit, or discarded syringes. On the downside, latex-allergic people can’t use them. Are there any better solutions?

But the parking and pathways and seating? This is a piece of cake. This is public design 101. It should be something that is an essential part of building new playgrounds and of upgrading existing ones.

But no one is bothering. People with disabilities are supposed to be the passive “cared-for”, not active carers. Parents are supposed to be “yummy mummies” and “footy dads”, throwing their kids around in an Omo commercial. People with disabilities are supposed to be passive recipients of ostentatious sympathy, or supercrips who “overcome” their “challenges”. Parents with mundane disabilities disrupt that script – so we ignore them, and hope that they’ll disappear. Sadly, many have no choice but to do so.

Categories: gender & feminism

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31 replies

  1. Several of my local parks use the rubber surface, which I love because of the broken glass factor, and the even surface is easier for me to walk on (quickly if I have to catch the toddler) without twisting my knees and ankles.
    I’m pretty active, and I find a lot of parks hard to get around. If the councils who design/maintain these parks don’t factor in disabled parents (or just the average parent with an occasional bad back or dodgy knee) you’d think they’d notice that half the kids at the park are being supervised by their grandparents.
    My partner would also like some softer play equipment at the 6’3″ mark, he keeps knocking his head on things.

  2. The local playground in my town has good seating and is close to parking and public toilets, but it’s also unfenced, muddy, and between a busy road and a creek. Local drivers know to slow down there (I once had a little boy ride his bike straight off the footpath and in front of my car, as his grandmother ran after him – I braked and didn’t hit him) but tourists don’t know to watch out, and a lot of trucks use that road. I know that the council has been asked to put up a fence ever since the playground was built, but it’s not a high priority. Even a path or better surfacing would help (grand)parents supervise their children.

  3. King’s Park has some of the better accessible play areas in Perth, and up where I live, the advantages of recent planning policy shine through with much better design of the parks to ensure they are (generally) accessible to everyone.
    Some of the benches, while still not comfortable, even have arms.
    Not a paradise by any means but certainly an improvement.
    Grendels last blog post..Cantina 663

  4. Public seating is usually hideously uncomfortable – but why does it have to be?
    At a suspicious guess, to make it impossible for the homeless to sleep on it.
    David Jackmansons last blog post..Brisbane Food: Bishamon’s $11.20 Lunch

  5. Because it’s always best to discourage homeless people from sleeping comfortably, with the super bonus effect of preventing those pesky gimps from cluttering up the landscape too.
    That aside, there are ways of constructing comfortable, accessible seating that isn’t comfortable to lie down on, so this excuse doesn’t hold water.

  6. Some of the benches in Melbourne have arms in the middle, deliberately making sleeping impossible. Thinking the best of our planners/councillors/designers doesn’t pay.

  7. …And mostly you just have exposed benches, an important part of my memory of (ablebodied) parenting of young children was freezing my f***ing tits off!! (If I go home now, he’ll /she’ll have nothing to do and get cabin fever, so nothing to do but freeze for another hour..) Good times.
    Hay’s paddock in Kew, Melbourne: A++. Fenced, rubber surfaces, big, caters for big cross section of ages. They have a special swing for CPs.

  8. Our closest playground is about 30 seconds walk from our house. It is possible to park _right there_ and one of the benches (with arms!) is in the shade. No fence, but also almost non-existent traffic. And built on woodchips.
    Our township also has a bigger playground next to the library. Fenced on two sides (the side beyond the basketball court, near the library parking lot; and the side along the busy street). Parking again is _right there_. Surface is rubber, but with paved walkway circling. Benches (some without arms, some with) and picnic tables around it, some in the shade.

  9. Because it’s always best to discourage homeless people from sleeping comfortably, with the super bonus effect of preventing those pesky gimps from cluttering up the landscape too.
    That aside, there are ways of constructing comfortable, accessible seating that isn’t comfortable to lie down on, so this excuse doesn’t hold water.

    I hope you don’t think I approve of making it hard for the homeless to sleep on benches. I’ve been homeless, and my experience of that is why I think it’s deliberate policy.

  10. Not at all, David; I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I was paraphrasing what I think may go through councilpeople’s minds when bench-planning.

  11. Cool, sorry, I’m a bit paranoid at the moment. I reckon you’re right about what goes through their minds.
    David Jackmansons last blog post..Government-enforced religion at the half-way house

  12. Guys, modern Spanish towns are for you! ALL playgrounds have those rubbery surfaces; there’s lots of seating;a lot of the playgrounds are right next to bars so you can socialise and stay warm. There are even outdoor escalators to help you up some of the steeper hills. There’s no parking because everybody walks to the park.
    BUT it’s only possible because there are so many people living and paying taxes in a small area.
    Free-standing houses are known as chalets, and are a mark of wealth.

  13. katarina, I noticed a few of the same features in France the last time I was there, in urban centres (not the heart of Paris, obviously, which is evenly divided between tourist attractions, ritzy boutiques and glamour town apartments). But just outside the heart there appeared to be quite a lot of effort spent on parks and playgrounds that everybody walked to (of course, that’s part of the accessibility issue – what if you’re a parent who can’t walk that far?).

  14. I did wonder about getting to those Spanish playgrounds if you can’t walk, Tigtog. It looked pretty good. The pavements are wide, with non-slip tiles and little ramps at all intersections, rather than just a drop.
    But in older towns the footpaths are impossibly narrow. They’re medieval roads paved over between the fifties and the eighties with cars in mind, without much thought for what happens once people get out of their cars. I think older towns all over Europe have the same problem.
    I saw a wheelchair user on the telly a while ago demonstrating the impossibility of using the footpath in his (old) town while in his wheelchair.

  15. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m dissing the Spanish town planners totally, Katarina. Well designed playgrounds at the heart of communities built around a set of facilities being in easy walking distance of home clusters? Excellent stuff!
    Edited to rethink: the attention paid to non-slip and sloping surfaces sounds like they have thought about it within the playground itself, but getting there is still so often a problem for some. The situation in the older towns with those picturesque but narrow and unevenly surfaced streets sounds diabolical.

  16. lauredhel, I have to thank you for paying attention to these things. I’ve just always had it in mind that my fibromyalgia is just a burden I have to deal with — that nobody should have to change anything *they* do, or anything around them, for my sake. Shades of selfish bitchery and so forth.
    You’re forcing me to rethink how I conceive of disability and accessibility. I need that.
    What depresses me is, if even *I* need that…
    amandaws last blog post..New location

  17. It seriously feels like there is an 80% rule. There is a check list of the things which make a kid’s park good, and no single park can contain more than 80% of them. If it is fenced and shaded, there are no seats. If it has seats and a range of equipment for different ages, there are no fences and no paths.
    I hadn’t thought before about the accessibility issue with sand and woodchip. Pathetic really since I have harboured a desire to be a kid’s playground designer since I was about 8.

  18. Ariane: I totally agree on the 80% rule! Some are much less, of course, but there’s definitely a ceiling.
    amandaw: Yay for your recruitment into the gimp militia. Reject the selfishbitchery construct!

  19. Back to the Spanish towns, I was thinking of the streets, rather than just the playgrounds themselves when I said the pavements were wide, with non-slip tiles and little ramps.
    I was talking about this post to a Spaniard and he agreed that modern Spanish towns are designed with the disabled and elderly in mind.
    But it’s easier for town planners here because the towns are so high-density and everything is concreted over.

  20. Maitland Park, (NSW) near my parents place is very good. Car park very close to playground, which contains wheelchair swing and ramp playground for kids with impaired mobility but suitable for all kids to use with small scooters and bikes (it is signposted ‘a playground for all’). It is fenced fortunately as the highway runs past, and shady, but the only seating is picnic benches.
    Where I live in Newcastle (40 minutes away) as far as I am aware, there are no parks with facilities as good as those at Maitland.

  21. You mean there are disabled people who deliberately go out and pass their genetic inferiority onto another generation? For shame… (beats head against a brick wall).

  22. Shocking, isn’t it DEM? 🙂
    Rayedish, I spent most of my school years in Newcastle (until Dad got transferred). I used to love King Edwards Park as a kid, but that would be a nightmare if you were disabled parent with all those steep slopes.

  23. Lauredhel, I just wanted to say that I’ve found this discussion really enlightening– as someone who is both fully-abled (with associated privilege) and childless, it’s not something I’d ever really thought of before, and you’ve helped me see that I’ve got a blind spot there. Thanks. 🙂

  24. Thanks Beppie – that’s the most marvellous thing a blogger can hear. On the downside, every time you cast aside another scale from your metaphorical eyes, it gives you one more thing to rage about as you go about your daily life.

  25. tigtog You are right about the lovely King Edward Park. They have put some equipment in, but its right on the road with no fencing, which would be very stressful if you were supervising a fast moving toddler. The other great park in Newcastle is the fairly new Foreshore park. It’s a beautiful park, but the carpark is ticketed$ and then you have to go up a rough dirt wide path to the equipment, hard enough with a pram, fairly tricky with a wheel chair, but the park does have a wheel chair swing. (But why go to the expense of putting in a wheelchair swing if you aren’t go to ensure that wheelchairs can get to it?) And some (although average) seating, some which is sometimes in the shade. The 80% comment above seems to be spot on to me!
    Rayedishs last blog post..And the award for political scandal of the week goes to…

  26. Mr Penguin ran a petition to get our local playground fenced – he succeeded largely because the way it was designed it had a very tempting curving pathway that took you straight on to the road if you were running fast.
    The thing I find most amazing is that most of what you have said is just as applicable to a woman breastfeeding a new baby (or another carer bottlefeeding, come to that). Need for wheeled access – check. Need for active toddlers to be fenced in because you can’t run straight after them – check. Need for shaded seating – check (especially if you have had no sleep the night before!).
    But when Mr Penguin went to council, most of the commentary (women as well as men) was along the lines of “in our day, we just looked after our children better”. He got there in the end, but the council planners were still very against the idea of a fence.
    Their view is that they don’t like fencing children in, as it’s a bit like caging them and making them the other. But if you’re next to a busy road, what are you supposed to do?
    After the fencing went in, our playground is pretty close to perfect. It has parking right there, seats in both the shade and the sun, a picnic bench, a bubbler, a disabled swing, and the access would work pretty much throughout the playground, I think. Although the large grassy sward would probably be harder, it’s not near the play equipment, so you’d be unlikely to have to go and rescue a toddler, there. The only hard part would be the child proofed gate – I don’t know how easy that would be with wheelchair.

  27. Good point about the child-proofed gate. Even with no gate, however, a single entrance with seating nearby makes it easier to intercept an escapee-wannabe. I hope that the councils putting in swimming pool type gates have thought about wheelchair access.

    But when Mr Penguin went to council, most of the commentary (women as well as men) was along the lines of “in our day, we just looked after our children better”.

    Well, isn’t that just the perfect way of telling PWD that they’re inadequate parents? Sheesh.
    I’m sure the traffic was just as bad back “in their day”, and that no child ever, ever died from being mown down by a vehicle, oh no.

    Their view is that they don’t like fencing children in, as it’s a bit like caging them and making them the other.

    They could always think of it as fencing the traffic out.
    But these sound like the type of people who would sneer at a Manhattan resident putting their toddler triplets on leashes on the sidewalk. There’s just no telling some people.

  28. I imagine that very few children were mown down by cars – say 1 in a thousand? So you’re unlikely to actually know one personally. But 1 in a thousand is still 1 too many, in my book.
    The 60 and 70 something councillors are pretty much saying that all the parents of today aren’t as good as they used to be – the mothers are too busy reading the paper sitting down to play with their children, seems to be their view. “And they should be playing with their children! We can’t make it easy for them to relax!” But these are the same people who probably decry “today’s helicopter parenting” – you can’t win.
    I think the other big difference (and now we’re getting away from the point of your post) is that in those days, most of the people who were talking lived in suburban areas with children just down the street who could come and play in the backyard. – already fenced. At least where we live, that’s just not how it works any more. At a fertility rate of 1.25 in our area (compared with 3-4 when I was a small child), there aren’t as many kids for company. So smaller backyards as well mean that the playground is far more important than it was then, just for company.


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