Students with disabilities at Heim Elementary School will no longer have to watch from the sidelines as their classmates and friends enjoy the school’s playground.
That's because the Williamsville, NY school is getting a playground that children with disabilities and those without can play in together.
When completed, the new playground will be the only completely barrier-free and handicap-accessible public playground in the Williamsville School District and Buffalo area," writes Heim Elementary Principal Patricia Langton.
Heim kindergarten teacher Maureen McGloin, president of the Heim Elementary Playground Committee who has cerebral palsy herself, knew the struggles she went through with conventional playground equipment.
“I have a very difficult time walking on our current playground surface because it is not leveled, and it is difficult to maintain balance when I try to walk on the stones because my feet seem to sink into the stones as I walk,” McGloin told WKBW-TV about old playground. “For adults or children who need the assistance of a wheelchair or crutches, this surface is virtually impossible.”
So when the time came to build a new playground, WIVB reports, she decided she wanted to lobby for one that was handicap accessible so that all children could use it despite the costs.
She wasn't alone. Inclusion was also important to the parents.
“When we first looked into playgrounds, one thing we were very firm on was that we wanted to make it a barrier-free playground,” said Heim Elementary Playground Committee member and parent representative Yvonne McTeague.
The wooden playground at Heim Elementary, first built in 1993, did not fit into that category.
Screenshot of old playground at Heim Elementary School
The importance of barrier free play
Experts who work with children with disabilities stress the importance of barrier free play in their development.
"Unstructured play is as integral to a child's development as shelter, love and food," said Mara Kaplan, chief executive of the Pittsburgh-based Center for Creative Play, according to the Seattle Times.
“Giving our children access to a playground that is designed for ALL children will level the playing field so all children can participate and utilize all aspects of our playground,” McGloin says.
According to the New York Times, nationally, the drive for accessible playgrounds began in response to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
Such playgrounds help the disabled overcome an otherwise "negative self-image because they don't have that equal access" to public facilities, said Karen Gerbig, a spokeswoman for Access Living, an advocacy group for the disabled, The Chicago Sun-Times reported.
"These are small but highly significant acts of including the disabled," she said.
“We do not want children to be hindered by obstacles that can be easily rectified. Every child should be given the opportunity and freedom to interact with, and enjoy, this playground in a comfortable atmosphere for all – without any barriers.”
So the new playground will have approximately 10,000 square feet of play space with a rubberized surface that will allow all children to have complete access to the playground equipment, making it easier for children in wheelchairs to get around when playing with their friends and classmates (see pictures here)
But accessible playgrounds, with wheelchair-friendly surfacing, cost more than traditional ones.
According to WKBW- TV, the cost of the playground and the special surface totaled $175,000.
As part of its policy, the Williamsville Central School District does not fund playgrounds, and the tough economic climate plus the State’s fiscal troubles has made it challenging to raise sufficient funds.
"What the playground cost, the equipment, is what the surface costs so we had to fund raise twice the amount of time because we wanted that surface," says Maureen McGloin.
Still, McGloin says the committee’s efforts to raise money creatively was worth it.
“Although it will take a little longer to raise the money for this surface, it is an integral part of our playground, and one on which I am not willing to compromise,” McGloin said last year.
And they didn't.
"In short, we, as a committee never waivered from our original plan even though some people thought we were crazy to be trying to raise that kind of money," McTeague told me in an email interview Monday.
How you can help make a difference
Although in the final stages of installing the playground, McTeague says their work is not done yet.
Since starting the build they've run into some unexpected expenses and could still use help with donations.
McTeague says if anyone would like to send a check or would like to know how else they could help she can be reached at 716-688-8727 or by email at email@example.com.
For more information and to see more pictures of their journey, visit their website.