A new playground on the city's Southwest Side welcomes kids with all ranges of ability.
Larry Labiak remembers his nine brothers and sisters playing with him pretty much the same way they did with each other. But there were always some limitations, he says. Confined to a wheelchair after contracting polio as a baby, “there were just some things I couldn’t do,” Labiak recalls. Things like climb the monkey bars at the playground. Or use the swings, or get to the top of the slide.
Labiak, who is now the disability policy officer for the Chicago Park District, says that things hadn’t changed much for kids with disabilities until recently, “and now they’re changing at an accelerated pace.” CPD has built 22 handicapped-accessible playgrounds since 2000. The newest, in the Austin neighborhood’s Columbus Park (500 S Central Ave, 773-287-7641), takes accessibility a step further, with features that kids with—and without—both physical and developmental disabilities can use.
Based on a model developed by the national nonprofit group Boundless Playgrounds, the $675,000 renovation in Columbus Park is the first public playground of its kind in Chicago—one where kids of varying abilities can truly play together.
“This isn’t a ‘handicapped’ playground; it’s a place where kids with different levels of ability can play together,” says Amy Jaffe Barzach, cofounder and executive director of Boundless Playgrounds, which has helped communities across the country build more than 100 universally accessible playgrounds since 1997. “They all have equal opportunities to be in the middle of the fun.”What that boils down to are features such as wheelchair ramps and bridges that access the same elevated platforms, shorter slides with side supports and a special rubberized surface more amenable to wheelchairs and people who have trouble walking. There are also private play spaces for autistic kids who are more comfortable playing by themselves, and balancing structures helpful for children with Down syndrome.
“Every kid wants to be king or queen of the hill, to reach the highest spot,” Labiak says. “And every kid can do that here. The feeling that brings someone who’s never been able to achieve that before is very big.”A portion of the funds for the renovation—which involved training of CPD design staff by Boundless Playgrounds—came from the 2005 Lollapalooza festival. The rest was raised by Parkways Foundation, a philanthropic group that provides private support for CPD projects.
“It goes beyond simply being compliant with ADA standards,” says Noren Ungaretti, immediate past president of Parkways and a member of the board of directors. “Parents with disabilities can bring their kids here and not worry about getting around. It’s great for grandparents who aren’t necessarily as spry as they once were. This is a whole different concept than just swings and slides.”
Columbus Park was chosen as the site for the new playground because of its proximity to downtown and the expressways, as well as Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, which has a large pediatric program, Ungaretti says. The existing playground was also adjacent to a parking lot and a field house, meaning additional funds wouldn’t be needed to add nearby handicapped parking or plumbing.
CPD already has plans for a similar design in Washington Park (5531 S King Dr), funded with the help of money from the 2005 and 2006 Lollapalooza show, according to Ungaretti.
Parks like these, where it’s perfectly normal for all kinds of kids to play alongside one another, can have a big impact on changing social attitudes toward people with disabilities, Labiak says. “These are the kinds of environments that help break down barriers and change attitudes. ”
For more information on Columbus Park, go to www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.