BFTP: Playground accessibility for parents with disabilities

This repost is part of our Summer Slowdown revisiting of the blog archives, and was originally published on 17th June, 2008.


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: parenting, social justice

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4 replies

  1. Hey, thanks for re-posting this – I’m an urban planning student and the comments on the original post are the kind of thing I can’t imagine ever coming across in class or in research. (Which might, maybe, be part of the problem……)

  2. L
    Playground safety has been the subject of my discussions with the City of Yarra and Melbourne.
    Unfenced playgrounds are cause for alarm. In the inner suburbs the traffic is very heavy and most parks (around here) seem to be near busy roads. Even for someone healthy and fit, keeping a youngster safe is an issue. Amazing how quickly a toddler can move in a ten second lapse.
    The Yarra park is the worst. Used as a car park for the MCG on most weekends the childrens palyground was unfenced until recently and cars would often drive through the playground looking for somewhere to stop. The addition of a fence along one side and against the access road is not much help and stops short of the “littlies” equipment.
    Otherwise you are correct when noting the lack of seating and seating that faces away from the equipment. Hazards such as needles and glass abound in the inner city.
    I can only imagine how those with disabilities manage to access the playgrounds and keep the youngsters both free and safe.
    As an aside, as a child I pretty much ran free to play wherever. Now my son needs me wherever he goes. No playing around the streets. I have to take him to soccer, swimming, boxing, karate, the park, playdays. Seems that our infrastructure now needs to accommodate not just children also those who must accompany them. Another price we pay for increased urbanisation.

  3. Quick review of two parks in my area, Willow Park and Neal Park:
    Pluses: some benches located in the shade within a short distance of the playground (2–5 metres), hard path circling all play areas. The play surfaces are rubber, and would be accessible to many people on wheels. The parks are totally fenced off.
    Minuses: the gates are the high-latch “child safe” ones that self-close, such as are also used for pool fencing. So there’s the issue that you can’t open them if you are a quite short or non-standing adult, and if you can open them, you have to get through them before they slam shut on you. (There are obviously trade-offs here with child safety, but these gates are inaccessible, there’s no doubt.)
    The shade is provided by trees, which means that at different times of the day it may have moved or not exist.
    Neal Park only has street parking I think, which means unloading a car in traffic, needing to rely on kerb cuts and so on. Willow Park has off-street parking, but the surface is in very poor condition, too poor for people on wheels I think. In addition while it has, I think, marked disabled spots, the parking spaces are not well marked with lines, which means that people squeeze their cars very close together, making it difficult for anyone with certain disabilities, or who is fat, or pregnant, or indeed has children who can’t exit a vehicle by themselves, or any combination thereof, to get out of their car.
    Both are several blocks from a major train station, it could be worse but not greatly accessible for people relying on public transit.
    The hard paths tend to be used by younger children, say, up to age 5 or 6, on wheel toys (bikes, scooters etc), which while there are again trade-off issues with children needing a safer place to learn to use such toys, makes the paths dangerous for anyone vulnerable to falls (and for very young children).

  4. marked disabled spots

    I should clarify what I mean there: I think there are poles with signs essentially indicating that “the spot in the general area in front of this sign is a disabled parking spot”, but that there are not good lines delineating the precise boundaries of these or other spots, meaning there’s a tendency for people to leave the bare minimum of room for a car there.

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