Accessibility issues mean Columbia's playgrounds not fun and games for all

Monday, October 14, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 14, 2013
When the playground at Cosmopolitan Park in Columbia is renovated, it will be more accessible to children in wheelchairs. The Caine family looks forward to the changes, so Kodi, who has cerebral palsy, can enjoy time at the park.

COLUMBIA — Kodi Caine's favorite thing about Columbia's playgrounds is the wind.

When she visits playgrounds, the brightly-colored slides and squeaking swings are of little use to her. Instead, she stays on the perimeter and enjoys the breeze that caresses her cheeks and the sounds of other children playing.

ADA guidelines broken down

The latest version of the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design was published in September 2010 and made accessible play areas a civil right.

These requirements apply to any playgrounds built or renovated after March 14, 2012. Most of Columbia’s parks were built before the new standards came into effect. While the city is not responsible for completely altering existing facilities to meet these new guidelines, any renovations they make must meet the new requirements.

The 2010 standards require that playgrounds:

  • are surrounded by accessible surfaces like pour-in-place rubber, rubber tiles or engineered wood fiber.
  • have an accessible route to the play area.

  • include ways for children in wheelchairs to access at least half of the structure's elevated play components.  This can be done via ramps or low steps that allow children to transfer themselves onto the structure from their wheelchairs.
  • make one of each type of ground-level play accessible. For example, if there are four swings one of them must be accessible. 
  • have all play components must within arms-length of a child in a wheelchair.  

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Born three months early, the 11-year-old has cerebral palsy and myriad related medical conditions. She uses a wheelchair because she doesn't have the strength to sit up by herself and is legally blind. Though she speaks in the squeals and gurgles of a 6-month-old, Kodi still appreciates being outside and around other kids. Her mother, Jennifer Caine, says it's obvious.

“When she hears the other kids playing, she joins in with her own squeals,” Caine said. “She doesn’t know what they’re laughing about. She thinks they’re laughing with her.”

Even at Cosmopolitan Park, Columbia’s largest playground and the Caine family's favorite, the sounds of others playing are all Kodi can experience at the moment. Although the park is compliant with accessibility standards, there is no equipment that many children with physical disabilities can safely use right now.

For children like Kodi, an ADA-compliant playground isn't necessarily accessible.

“There is absolutely nothing there for Kodi,” her mother said. "The typical child can go out to the world. The world has to be brought to Kodi, which requires the world to be set up a little differently.”

Cosmo Park: a new standard

The city hopes to change the way children like Kodi experience Columbia’s playgrounds. The new renovations to Cosmo Park’s Steinberg Playground will include a wide variety of features accessible to children with different disabilities. 

“With the Steinberg Playground we’re going to go above and beyond the standards,” senior parks planner Toney Lowery said. “There’s compliant and then there’s above and beyond.”

The playground area, which takes up nearly two acres, will include play structures with ramps and transition areas, swings with back supports, group swings, roller tables for muscle stimulation and a smooth rubber surface, project director Matt Boehner said via email. All of these elements will be included in the playground’s prehistoric and futuristic themes. 

In addition to the $18,000 allocated for the project from the disability commission for the rubber surface area, the city plans to spend $500,000 on the renovation. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2014.

The Steinberg Playground will be the first in Columbia to include play components tailored specifically for kids with disabilities, though Boehner said the parks and recreation department intends to include similar features in other facilities as well. lists 13 playgrounds in Missouri considered accessible and inclusive. Columbia has zero on the list. The nearest is in Sedalia, an hour away

Outdoor play helps children develop motor skills and learn to respond to a wide variety of sensory stimulation, said Nora Hager, coordinator of the child life program in MU's department of human development and family studies.

"Children can create their own worlds, away from adults, in which they feel masterful," Hager said. "However, it’s a great environment for children and parents to create strong bonds as well, from playing hide-and-seek to fishing together on the bank of a pond."

Christy Brookins, a member of the city's disability commission and director of United Cerebral Palsy Child Development Center,  said she thinks the plans for Cosmo Park are “right on target.”

“I feel that Columbia is really making an effort finally to make parks accessible for parents and their kids,” she said.

Continued renovations

The obstacles to accessibility in Columbia's playgrounds are numerous: the wood mulch surrounding many Columbia playgrounds is difficult to maneuver in a wheelchair. There are no swings that would support the body of a child who cannot support himself or herself. There are no playgrounds with ramps for wheelchair access.

But city officials say they've been working on it.

“Over the last 20 or 30 years we’ve made a conscious effort to build everything to ADA standards,” said Mike Griggs, director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

In September 2011, the department completed a survey of 33 city parks and facilities that compared the facilities to the requirements of the 1994 Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design. The department hired MU construction project manager Gerald Morgan, who had previously evaluated the university’s campus, to visit each park and evaluate its compliance.

Morgan recommended 720 changes to the facilities, ranging from re-striping parking spaces to constructing new sidewalks and installing wheelchair lifts for swimming pools, according to the evaluations.

Morgan estimated in 2011 that it would cost the city $839,274 to complete all the recommended changes, though Griggs said he expects the actual cost to be less than $700,000. Morgan’s estimate is based on the cost of outside labor, but Griggs said park staff would complete some of the work as part of normal upkeep and renovation. The changes are funded by the city’s park sales tax.  

Five of the parks’ playgrounds were recommended to improve their accessibility by replacing the surrounding gravel with ADA-approved wood mulch. The pea gravel still exists at Bear Creek Park, Indian Hills Park, Parkade Park and Valleyview Park but has been replaced with wood fiber at Shepard Boulevard Park.

Though wood chips are acceptable per 1994 ADA standards, they are still difficult to roll over in a wheelchair. Brookins said that few kids can wheel themselves over the chips and that they usually need someone to push them. 

No other changes to the playgrounds were recommended, as the 1994 standards do not have any specific requirements for playgrounds. 

Since the reports were made, approximately 12 percent of the changes have been completed, according to the planning document used by the parks and recreation department. Park services manager Gabe Huffington said the department has completed other ADA-related projects that were not on the original list, primarily sidewalk improvements at Paquin Towers and the Maplewood Home at Nifong Park.

Next year's to-do list

In 2014, the department will focus on improving Albert-Oakland Park, the Blind Boone Home, Fairview Park and Douglass Park in addition to the Steinberg Playground, Huffington said.

Griggs said the projects with the most impact on accessibility will be completed first. For example, he said a door that was too heavy for a person in a wheelchair to open would have priority over lowering a mirror a few inches for easier use.

The city also plans to hire a parks and facilities specialist, a new position for the city, who will be responsible for the list of ADA projects, among other responsibilities.

Griggs said the parks and recreation department is always open to new suggestions outside of the technical requirements of the ADA. He said it is difficult to predict every accessibility issue before starting construction and problems are often fixed after completion of the project when the department can analyze how people are using the facility.

“When users come to us with recommendations we are more than happy to work with them," Griggs said. "We want to meet with our users and hear what they say.”

Even though she spends most of her day in her wheelchair, Kodi can do many things outside of it as well. In her adapted physical education class at Mary Paxton Keely Elementary School she does rolling exercises and gets to lie on her stomach to complete some activities. Her mother said she’d love for Kodi to be able to do these activities at playgrounds.

The playgrounds' accessibility issues affect more than just Kodi: Her two siblings don’t get to experience the parks as much as they would like, either. The Caine family visits the city’s playgrounds two or three times each summer, but Jennifer Caine said the family would go more often if there were more for Kodi to do.

"I just don't want my son to resent her for the way she is," she said. "He likes to run and play like any 6-year-old. Sometimes I feel like we have to constantly hold him back from being a little boy."

She said she hoped someday, families will not have to be divided into those who can play and those who cannot. She's philosophical about why it took the city until now to become aware of playground accessibility. It's just not something people think of unless it directly impacts their lives.

“Before we had Kodi, we never once looked at a park and thought about what a kid in a wheelchair couldn’t do,” she said. “Unless you’ve experienced this firsthand, you have no idea.”

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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