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Richmond struggles to create accessible playgrounds

It hurts Maggie Chen to watch her son at a playground. Edison, a four-year-old boy who had infantile paralysis, is…

By Juanzi Zhang , in City , on November 20, 2013 Tags: ,

Stone barriers
Stone barriers prevent children in wheelchairs from enjoying the playground.

It hurts Maggie Chen to watch her son at a playground.

Edison, a four-year-old boy who had infantile paralysis, is only able to sit in his wheelchair and watch others when his mom takes him to the park near their house near No. 3 Road and Westminster Highway.

“I know he wants to play with other kids. I can tell this with his eyes,” said Maggie.

In a perfect world, Edison would get a chance to mingle with the other children if the park had some of the new equipment that’s been invented to allow special-needs children to participate in playgrounds. But Richmond does not have anything like that.

They city is trying its best to develop new playgrounds and rebuild older playgrounds, said Kevin Connery, a Richmond park planner. But it is a slow process, because of the complexity and cost of making all playgrounds accessible to all children with all kinds of special needs.

Richmond is not alone. That is the issue that is facing other cities as parents ask for more specialized playgrounds for children with special needs.

playground equipment
Children who are unable to walk cannot play on certain playground equipment due to large steps.

‘It enriches children’s lives’

It’s not just parents who want handicapped children to be able to play more in public parks.

Dr. James Lu, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, thinks that play is an important way for children to develop physically, mentally as well as socially.

“If playgrounds are accessible to all children, no matter what their abilities are, it would enrich the lives of not just children with special needs but all children and their families. It would help build a sense of belonging in the neighbourhoods,” said Lu.

That rings true for a woman who experienced the lack of belonging as a child.

Ravinder Dhillon, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and had been shut out of playgrounds in her childhood, said inaccessible playgrounds can be seen as a kind of discrimination against people with disabilities because they are excluded from their friends and not integrated into the community.

In addition to the discrimination issue, advocates like Lu believe that every child should have an equal right to play.

“Richmond has adopted a children’s charter. The first right for children in Richmond is the ‘right to play.’ We are working with the city on how to put the children’s charter into action.”

 Costly playgrounds

In response to parents’ needs, Richmond is striving to find a way to implement the accessible playgrounds while staggering under the load of high costs and complex equipment demands.

Woodchips at Terra Nova playground
Woodchips at Terra Nova playground are packed tightly to ensure wheelchairs don’t sink into the footing.

“Relatively, the average price of a regular playground is about $40,000 to $50,000 while an accessible playground costs $100,000,” said John Rule, a general manger from Swing Distributors Ltd.

Accessible playgrounds cost more because they require more ramps and different kinds of material. Sand is cheap, but it is considered inaccessible, since wheelchairs get stuck in it, so the city no longer uses it as a playground surface.

Wood fibre, another potential surface material, costs about $25 to $35 per square metre. A rubber surface, which is about $175 to $200 per square metre, is the most expensive.

“Due to budget constraints, we favour wood chips. In order to be accessible for all children, we make sure the wood chips are packed enough so that wheelchair will not get stuck when it moves across. Meanwhile, children will not get hurt if they fall down,” said Connery.

Connery said that the other challenge is defining what an accessible playground is because there are kids with all different types of disabilities. When factoring in different levels of disabilities, the question comes then what a truly accessible playground is.

For Ella Huang, an executive director of Richmond Centre for Disability, “accessible playgrounds should not only allow children with disabilities to get into the play area to observe, but also should have pieces of play equipment that will allow them to join in and play.”

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City of Richmond efforts

Connery said the city is trying to make improvements in layers. The first layer is to ensure everyone can access the play area. The next layer is to ensure there are play opportunities on the ground plane for all children.

Then the next layer will be ensuring play equipment for children with different sources of disabilities.

Four playgrounds have been built in Richmond so far that provide the second level, with swings available for disabled children.

A few more allow children with disabilities to at least access the playground. For the moment, that’s as much as Richmond has been able to do.