The Record       
Giving disabled kids someplace to play
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
Teaneck's Jacob Adler, 8, enjoys Paramus' handicapped accessible swing and playground at Van Saun Park Friday.
Jacob Adler dreams of flying on the swings and gliding down the ramps in the jungle gym of a local playground.
For now, the 8-year-old with cerebral palsy must sit in his wheelchair and watch his able-bodied peers slide, swing and jump.
Sometimes, finding a playground where disabled children can play is as challenging as swinging across the monkey bars with one hand.
Although the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act mandated that public parks improve accessibility for the handicapped, it didn't require equal participation at playgrounds.
In recent years, more communities across the country have recognized the need for all-abilities playgrounds where the blind, autistic and wheelchair-bound can play side by side with everyone else. A growing number of parks are reaching beyond minimum ADA requirements to include such features as paths for wheelchair traffic, swings for those who lack the strength to sit upright, signage for the visually impaired and cozy spots for the autistic.
Some of these New Jersey havens can be found in Paramus, Clifton, Ringwood, Livingston, Hawthorne, East Brunswick, Union, Hopewell, Palisades Park and, most recently, in Morristown.
Fast facts
Some features of a universally accessible playground:
* Jungle gym ramps are wheelchair-accessible and have rails and raised edges.
* Paths to playground equipment are wide enough for a wheelchair or scooter (at least 60 inches).
* Pathway surfaces are made of uniformly sized rubber mats, poured rubber or wood fiber -- making it easy for wheelchairs, scooters and walkers to maneuver.
* Surface materials are thick enough to provide adequate shock absorbency, reducing chances of injury from a fall.
* Overhead rings and bars are low enough to be reached from a scooter or wheelchair.
* Slides have an accessible means of getting back to the entrance point – such as a rubbery path, rather than dirt or sand.
* Swings provide adequate body support for those with little upper body strength.
* Sandboxes should be elevated so children in wheelchairs and scooters can roll up to them.
* Chimes and Braille games for the blind.
* Wheelchair-accessible picnic tables.
* Quiet spaces for children with autism or sensory issues.
* Shady areas for children who must limit sun exposure.
* * *
Where to go
The following is a list of some handicap-friendly parks in North Jersey:
* Van Saun Park on Forest Avenue in Paramus
* Goffle Brook Park on Goffle Road in Hawthorne
* Baseball diamond for disabled at Overpeck Park in Palisades Park
* Chelsea Park on Chelsea Avenue in Clifton
* Pioneer Park Playground on Poplar Drive in Ringwood
But many North Jersey parents of disabled children still travel out of their hometowns to find an accessible playground. Such playgrounds service children with a wide range of needs.
Vicki Cupo of Wayne drives a half-hour from her home to bring her son, Daniel, to the special playground in Clifton. Daniel, 7, who is autistic and has low muscle tone, finds it easier to use the wheelchair-accessible ramp than to climb the steps found at other jungle gyms. The handicapped-accessible swing also makes it easier for him to sit up.
"We enjoy it there, but if there were one closer to home, we'd definitely be able to go more often," Vicki Cupo said.
The Adler family must take Jacob to Van Saun Park in Paramus because the Teaneck parks are inadequate.
"There's not much he can do [in Teaneck] because he can't climb on any of the climbing equipment and he can't swing on any of the swings," said Jacob's mother, Debby."It's a tease for him to go."
Although no organization tracks the numbers of universal playgrounds catering to this country's nearly 6 million disabled children, industry experts put the number at 125 nationwide.
"They were almost non-existent 10 years ago ... but now there's a wonderful movement by municipalities and manufacturers towards developing playgrounds for children of all abilities," said Tiffany Harris, executive director of Shane's Inspiration, a non-profit organization in California whose aim is to eliminate bias against the disabled through integrated play.
Buoyed by the progress, as well as the plethora of handicapped-accessible equipment on the market, a group of Teaneck parents is demanding the township create an all-abilities playground close to home. They have written letters and made calls to local officials about the issue.
Cindy Balsam, who is heading the Teaneck campaign, was moved to act because of her despair when she takes her able-bodied children along with her wheelchair-bound daughter, Nettie Martz,4½, to a local playground. "It's sad that Nettie has no opportunity to participate," said Balsam, whose daughter has several disabilities. "We shouldn't punish a child who is less able when there is accessible equipment around.
"In an era in which handicapped parking spots and handicapped bathrooms are readily available, it should be mandatory to include all children in basic playground activities in our towns," Balsam said.
In case local officials don't respond, Balsam is submitting an essay to a nationwide Playskool-sponsored contest to win a community playground worth $300,000.
More than 700 of the 4,600 students in the Teaneck school district have disabilities, according to Renee Jones, co-founder of the Special Parents of Teaneck, a support and advocacy group.
The major obstacle for creating a disability-friendly park is funding, said Helene Fall, Teaneck Township manager. Playground structures typically range from $30,000 to $90,000, she said. Although Teaneck probably would decline to build a new playground, it would be feasible for the town to update aging equipment with handicapped-accessible features, Fall said.
Others in Teaneck were receptive to the idea.
"It's a no-brainer," said Mayor Elie Katz, who began examining the issue after receiving letters from concerned parents. "Certainly there's a need for this. It's not just good for those who are disabled; it's a great way to educate other kids and sensitize them to those with special needs."
The Bergen County Parks Department is committed to making all county parks wheelchair-accessible by 2010, said department spokesman Alan Koenig. The county has built a wheelchair-accessible baseball diamond, as well as accessible playgrounds at Van Saun Park, Palisades Park and, in coming months, Ridgewood.
"We are absolutely going beyond the FDA requirements," said Koenig. "Everyone should be able to enjoy a playground."
Raymond Wright Jr. of the Passaic County Parks Department said the county was among the first to construct a universally accessible playground, which it did several years ago at Rifle Camp Park in West Paterson. After that park deteriorated, an all-abilities playground was constructed at Goffle Brook Park in Hawthorne. "We did it before it was ever in vogue," he said.
He and other Passaic County officials said such a park helps to boost socialization skills of the disabled and improve tolerance by all children for those with handicaps. The best part about the playground, he said, "is that it's a place where all the children can gather to talk and play together."
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