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It became a requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act last year: Playgrounds have to offer help to children with disabilities so they can play alongside their peers. Such playgrounds can cost several hundred-thousand dollars. And whether kids with disabilities are able to enjoy this new civil right might depend on where they live. In his second of two reports, here's NPR's Robert Benincasa.
ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: Teresa and Juan Soto are walking to the playground near their home in innercity Richmond, California. Juan pushes their 3-year-old son, Emmanuel, in his wheelchair. As they arrive, the boy is excited to get there. Emmanuel, who was born with spina bifida, enters the play area in his wheelchair, but the chair gets stuck on the playground's floor, which is made of a kind of loose woodfill. His dad has to lift him out of his wheelchair, and place him on a slide.
There's not much that Emmanuel can do by himself at this playground, and he's not alone. Despite new federal requirements that playgrounds accommodate children with disabilities, many of the nation's playgrounds still aren't friendly places for kids with physical challenges. Emmanuel's mother fights back tears remembering that when he was 2, he quickly figured out that he couldn't play with the other children here.
TERESA SOTO: (Through translator) He told me, Mommy, I'm not able to play with the kids. Let's go. I said, why? You wanted to come here. He said, no. Let's go, Mommy.
BENINCASA: Soto is disappointed in her city's playgrounds. When she can, she drives Emmanuel to a park in another town, 45 minutes away. That's not always possible, though. In the morning, Soto works cleaning houses. Later in the day, she takes care of Emmanuel's older sister, a teenager with Down's syndrome.
I told Richmond Parks and Landscaping Superintendent Chris Chamberlain about Emmanuel. He says there's often a disconnect between what the law requires and what a child needs. Even city playgrounds that do comply with ADA requirements might not accommodate every child.
CHRIS CHAMBERLAIN: To expect her child to be able to wheel into, or even get pushed into, and get up and into the structure, that's what I'm talking about - that's the gap.
BENINCASA: Chamberlain says the loose, wood fiber surface in Soto's neighborhood park does meet the standard for wheelchair access. Other city playgrounds, which don't have ramps leading into play equipment, also comply with the ADA. But for Emmanuel Soto, the playground's design doesn't work. With no ramps for his wheelchair, he'd have to use something called a transfer system to get onto the play equipment.
JOHN MCGOVERN: Which basically requires me, if I'm a child who uses a wheelchair, to wheel up alongside of it, drag myself out of the wheelchair, and transfer onto a platform; and then ascend until I get to the fun part of the playground that I can use.
BENINCASA: That's accessibility consultant John McGovern.
MCGOVERN: It's a pretty exhausting process, though, and not a lot of kids with physical disabilities can do it.
BENINCASA: McGovern represented public parks and recreation departments on the federal advisory committee that helped draft the new playground requirements. He and others close to the process tell NPR that the committee made some compromises based on cost. One of them was allowing those troublesome loose surfaces as an alternative to better, but more expensive, smooth services. Another was not requiring ramps on smaller playgrounds. Still, McGovern says he's glad the regulations moved from voluntary guidelines to requirements, under the nation's civil rights laws.
MCGOVERN: To me, this is no different than a public parks and recreation professional standing out in front of a recreation center and saying,"We don't allow women in here," or "We don't allow Hispanics in here." It's exactly the same concept.
BENINCASA: For her part, Teresa Soto knows what she'd like to see in her neighborhood.
SOTO: (Through translator) I would love someone to tell me, at this place, your son will be safe. He will be in a fun place that is accessible for him.
BENINCASA: Richmond recently won $7 million in grants for city park projects. Chamberlain says the city is planning better play areas that will help disabled children and more typical children play together.
Robert Benincasa, NPR News.
GREENE: And with your help, NPR is compiling a national database of accessible playgrounds. To find one near you or to add one to our database, visit npr.org/playgrounds.