Iowa City’s Arc pArc offers solutions for playground accessibility

Isaiah Krishnan, 9, uses a wheelchair to navigate the Arc pArc playground. — photo by Jason Smith

The Iowa City Community School District has been grappling with questions of accessibility on school playgrounds, with parents like Melissa Krishnan, whose 9-year-old son Isaiah uses a wheelchair, advocating for schools to use some of the methods adopted by local organizations like Arc of Southeast Iowa, to make sure every kid can play with their peers.

Equipment manufacturers are required to create playgrounds that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements when built. But some in the district contend that this minimum standard doesn’t go far enough to create an environment where children with disabilities can play with their peers, and that playgrounds may not be adequately maintained to retain ADA compliance.

Arc, an organization that serves individuals with disabilities, prioritized accessibility when designing their playground, the Arc pArc. Cost was a factor in the design and Arc would like to do more, said compliance and development director Jorja Ludeking, but the choices that were made allow children with mobility challenges to access the majority of the playground.

Many playgrounds in the Iowa City area and elsewhere, including the area under a swing at the Arc pArc, use engineered wood fiber to fill in the ground beneath their play structures. This wood fiber surface requires a high level of maintenance to remain ADA compliant, because without a thick, compacted layer it is unsafe for a wheelchair. Ludeking said the upkeep in this area has been a challenge, and it was not in compliance at the time of the visit in June. The rest of the pArc’s surface is made of a rubberized material (like the Ped Mall playground’s surface) which provides a low maintenance, reliably safe surface. Arguments against its use in the district have centered around cost, because this material requires a significantly larger initial investment.

The pArc also has wider ramps that provide plenty of clearance for a wheelchair. Slide exit points are closer to the ground, enabling a safer dismount. A number of features can be used independently by individuals of all abilities, such as a teeter-totter-like device called a Sway Fun that can fit multiple wheelchairs, a spinning tic-tac-toe type game, built in musical instruments and colorful spinning balls. There is a large swing that can accommodate just about anyone with assistance, little one-person hideouts for those who need a break from the chaos, and a small garden where playground visitors are free to explore and pick what they like.

Another concept the pArc employs is side-by-side activities. A series of platforms to hop across is not wheelchair accessible, but there is a ramp right next to it so children on both courses can play side by side. A side-by-side slide allows a caregiver to slide next to a child and provide assistance.

The National Program for Playground Safety offers guidelines and resources for playground design, and research for better solutions is ongoing. The conversation about accessibility is constantly evolving, and Ludeking said it’s important to keep reevaluating the design of the playground as new options and information become available. The ADA only began covering playground equipment in the 1990s, and disability advocates have been working to educate the public about the issue.

What’s happening at Iowa City schools?

Shimek Elementary, where Isaiah Krishnan is a student, is in the process of constructing a new playground and took steps to adjust the new playground’s design after pressure from community members. Krishnan feels that these changes could have gone farther to make the playground accessible, while some board members said concerns had been addressed.

“It’s a 25-year decision and what goes in is there until 2042, or there about. Whatever we don’t get right we’ll have to wait until then to get it corrected,” board member Chris Liebig said at a May 23 school board meeting where the possibility of modifying the playground was debated.

During that meeting, board member Lori Roetlin said every child should be able to play on the new playground.

“If every child can’t play [on the new Shimek playground] then we haven’t achieved what we said we can do.”

Tony Malkusak, who works for the company that is constructing the playground, said the original plan was ADA compliant. Despite this technical compliance, District Equity Director Kingsley Botchway said after the May 23 meeting that it was not as accessible as it could be. He said he would review policies and make sure the district was compliant with local guidelines, but that inclusivity is more subjective and Physical Plant Director Duane Van Hemert would take the lead on that piece.

Krishnan was among those who spoke out against the initial new playground design, which she said would have barred her son from accessing half the playground and its components because they lacked ground-level components and because of the engineered wood fiber surface.

Community member Laura Westemeyer (who is now running for school board) also spoke out against the design, and said striving for the least restrictive environment for students is the law, and that playground accessibility is a piece of that.

“We have playgrounds that children with disabilities currently can’t go on because they’re not accessible,” she said after the May 23 meeting. “The playground is just like a classroom. If there’s a kid who doesn’t have a desk to sit at, we have to make sure he has a desk that’s appropriate for him. It’s not going above and beyond, it’s what we have to do.”

Ben Brozene, a member of the playground committee and incoming Shimek Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) vice president, said the playground committee listened to everyone’s input and made more than a good-faith effort.

“The process took 15 months, and at the very last meeting, a bunch of people who were fed to some degree what I would consider misinformation showed up at the meeting to argue against the playground,” he said.

In addition to questions surrounding the accessibility of the playground design, people also cited safety concerns because the new playground will be constructed behind the school to make room for temporary classrooms while the building is being renovated.

Brozene said stopping the process was an example of the administration and the public overreaching against the wishes of Shimek parents.

“Ninety percent of the people on the playground committee voted in favor of the current location, and they were split between two different structures,” with a majority voting for the current structure and three abstaining, he said.

Brozene said he thought opposition was rooted in distrust of the administration rather than flaws in design.

Botchway said after the May 23 meeting that he thought the discussion about the Shimek playground was overly focused on wheelchair users without addressing other disabilities like different leg mobility, arm mobility and physical strength challenges. He said he hoped that would be addressed in revisions to the playground design.

Krishnan said she disagreed.

“If you build a playground for a wheelchair user, everybody’s going to be able to use it,” she said.

The district recently decided to allocate funds to renovate and improve playgrounds across the district, with a focus on increasing accessibility and safety. The goal of the program was to decrease disparities between playgrounds across the district. But parent teacher organizations can raise funds for additional features, which has raised questions about continuing inequity between schools.

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