Fighting for accessible playgrounds

Sarah Turnbull with her 18-month old daughter Blake.

Sarah Turnbull and her daughter Blake, who uses a wheelchair, took but a few seconds to show me the problem with most of Regina’s city-run and school-run playgrounds.

“This is a playground you’re probably used to seeing,” said Turnbull as she entered the soft, pebble-covered school playground with her 18-month-old daughter. Turnbull struggled to push Blake’s stroller. “And this is an adult pushing so you can imagine a child.”

It is just as challenging elsewhere on the playground. The play area is bordered with an elevated wood border, making it extremely difficult for anyone in a wheelchair to enter the play area, let alone play in it. Once inside the playing area, there are no ground level play areas and no ramps. The soft, sandy grounds offer nothing accessible unless you are non-disabled. If 18-month-old Blake attended this school, it would mean little or no recess playtime.

This is a typical school playground that excludes most children with mobility challenges

Blake has spina bifida. Her legs are paralyzed and will be a wheelchair user and eventually a part-time walker using mobility devices and sticks. Soon after Blake was born, Turnbull started a crusade for more accessible playgrounds in schools and public parks in Saskatchewan. For example, in Regina, Turnbull says of the dozens of play areas; only two can be considered accessible.

“The thing that worries me the most is we can avoid the park but (Blake) can’t avoid recess. It is heartbreaking to think you can give your child everything. Still, when it comes to recess, Blake has to stay on the sideline and watch everyone else play simply because the surface isn’t accessible,” said Turnbull as her voice broke up. “Think about sending her to recess. There’s a whole park of kids playing, and she’s sitting on the side and getting other kids the choice to not play or play with my daughter.”

A mere five minute walk away from the inaccessible school playground is Regina’s Gocki Optimist Playground, a fully accessible park. The play area features a flat rubber base. There are ramps and other features that allow all children, including Blake, to play. Students from a nearby school use the playground. Local Optimists clubs and the city of Regina funded Gocki.

Turnbull says Regina’s Gocki Optimist Playground is one of only two playgrounds in the city that she considers fully accessible.

“We like it because there’s stuff for Blake to do. We can come here with our friends and play alongside other kids,” said Turnbull.

More than 540,000 youths in Canada aged 15 to 24 years had one or more disabilities, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability conducted for Statistics Canada.

Navigating through the system for change is a challenge for the disabled and their advocates. Unlike the National Building Code that requires access to buildings, such a code does not exist for playgrounds nationally.
“When it comes to accessibility, there are so many gaps and so many holes in the system that it’s very exhausting to try and fix them all,” says Turnbull.

On the Federal Level, Ottawa passed the Accessible Canada Act in 2019, intending to “ensure a barrier-free Canada” for areas under federal jurisdiction. However, school playgrounds generally operate under provincial jurisdictions, and city and town parks operate under municipal governments.

The Saskatchewan government announced new legislation in 2019 “aimed at removing and preventing accessibility barriers,” which will look at the “design of public spaces.”

Saskatchewan has an Office of Disability Issues under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Social Services. The office says it works with other levels of government to build “momentum for the changes needed to create greater opportunities for people with disabilities in their communities.”

The province tried moving forward with its Saskatchewan Disability Strategy in 2015. Among its stated principles are to promote and incorporate universal plans for “designing buildings, products and environments that are accessible to everyone enables participation in all aspects of society.”

On the municipal level, Regina has an Accessibility Advisory Committee. Similar committees exist in Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Albert. According to the City of Regina’s accessibility web page, there are three fully accessible playgrounds (Rick Hansen Optimist Playground, Gocki Optimist Playground, and Sandra Schmirler), with 11 others offering accessible elements. In reality, Turnbull says there are only two in the city that she considers she considers fully accessible, but that does not include the Schmirler Park.

“By definition, an accessible park must have at least 50 percent of things accessible. It (Schmirler) doesn’t meet that, not even close,” says Turnbull.

All the efforts nationally, provincially, and locally don’t mean a lot to Blake, who is happiest when playing in an accessible playground.

Turnbull points to a different story in the United States. The Americans Disabilities Act passed in 1990 to ensure national standards exist that include playgrounds.

“There’s no legislation for playgrounds in Canada. It’s up to the community or the municipality or governing authority to make the rules. Because of that, you have to rely on whoever makes the rules to think about it. It’s a circular process. You don’t see us, you don’t think of us, you don’t design for us,” said Turnbull.

There are innovative and cost-effective plans out there that can accommodate children of all abilities. The Rick Hansen Foundation provides a detailed guide to creating accessible play spaces based on Universal Design principles offering “something for everyone to participate in.”

There are examples of such playgrounds in Saskatchewan. The Royal Heights Veterans’ Memorial Park in Estevan opened in 2019 with a design based on the Rick Hansen design for accessibility. Prince Albert’s Malcolm Jenkins Fieldhouse playground recently held its grand opening as a fully accessible playground with funding assistance from the city, the province, and Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program. Realistically, most playgrounds can’t count on such generous funding.

As an example, Regina’s new École Harbour Landing School did not come with a new playground. A Playground Fundraising Committee is working on raising funds.

“Parks are very much community-based projects. There’s usually a team of parents, a team of communities who run fundraisers who work hard to make these parks happen,” says Turnbull. “If I can reach out to the community and make them aware of the issue, maybe they will stick up their hand when they see a park and say wait a minute, not everyone can play here. What can we do to make it better?

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