Friday, December 19, 2008

NJ playground adapted for disabled children

From the Cherry Hill Courier-Post in N.J.:

MEDFORD, N.J. — Eowyn West always hoped she'd be able to take her daughters -- Abigail, 7, and Meghan, 9 -- to the playground together one day.

It's something the 40-year-old mother said she's avoided for the last several years because it became "heartbreaking" to watch Abigail sit by, unable to join in the fun, because she has cerebral palsy.

"(Regular playgrounds) weren't accommodating," West said. "It wasn't fair for one to go to the playground and one not to. It got disheartening."

So when the township decided a few months ago to build what will be Burlington County's first handicap-accessible playground, West eagerly joined the effort.

The planned play area is actually an addition to Fort Medford playground, which was was closed from February to October for repairs and safety upgrades.

But as officials were preparing to reopen the playground -- designed and built in 1995 by a group of area residents -- they realized they needed to make the park at least 50 percent handicap-accessible to comply with state regulations, said Beth Portocalis, Medford's recreation director.

Rather than tear down the existing facility or close it again for further upgrades, Portocalis said, the township decided to expand the playground and make the addition 100 percent compliant.

"The state agreed it was a great idea, so we took it to the council, who knew how important Fort Medford is to us," Portocalis said.

West said she joined the committee to provide some insight from a special-needs parent. There are only a handful of accessible playgrounds in the tri-county area, she said, including two in Camden County. There are none in Burlington County, and between prep and commuting time, a half-day could be lost traveling to the out-of-county playgrounds, West said.

"It wasn't somewhere we could go," West said.

The Medford Park Committee hopes to change that by opening the new playground this spring. Council agreed to give the recreation department $175,000 to order new equipment for the playground, each piece of which was selected to help special-needs children work around their disabilities, West said.

For example, metal slides were installed so hearing-impaired children can feel the vibrations, and there are activity panels located around the area geared toward autistic children, she said. Now the Medford Playground Committee needs to raise an additional $100,000 to cover equipment installation, fencing, guardrails and handicapped parking spots.

Donations are being accepted on the township's Web site, West said, and there are opportunities to sponsor pieces of equipment or to buy personalized pavers to benefit the project.

When completed, the playground will double the size of the current facility, and its double-wide design and rubberized surfacing will make it easier for wheelchair- or walker-bound children or caregivers to maneuver around the equipment.

West said the playground will be a dream come true for families like hers.

"I would love for typical and nontypical children to learn from each other," she said. "(Abigail) really enjoys being friends with other children who are not disabled. As a friend of mine put it, just because my daughter has cerebral palsy, that doesn't mean she's only going to be friends with people with cerebral palsy."

She added that it will also benefit parents or grandparents with special needs who would be otherwise unable to play with their youngsters.

And parents like herself will have a place to network and, she said, "commiserate."

"I think it's perceived that special-needs parents spend a lot of time together," she said. "But guess what? We don't, and it's very difficult to network. It's not like there's a special-needs child book that's given to you when you bring your child home."

Portocalis said the money raised will be used to install recycled-rubber surfacing, in keeping with another of the playground's objectives, to be as "green" as possible. The rubber surfacing is also best for wheelchairs and walkers, she said.