It’s 2015. Play is for All.

In Anchorage, there’s a roller rink that recently forbade a child with a disability from being out on the rink.

I don’t have children. I don’t have a disability. My family doesn’t have anyone with a disability. For some reason or another I passionately believe that it is a human right for children to have access to play. More importantly, that children have access to being with their friends. Even more importantly perhaps, that children have a right to the opportunities to make new friends.

When I was a kid, I moved at the age of 9 and 12. In retrospect, I feel that those two times were perhaps poor times to move, because you land in a place where the other kids already had their groups of friends. Whether for my own sensitivity or not, I felt a bit out of place and like I was always missing out on what the others were doing. The reality is likely that everyone felt the same, but it’s left me with a desire to ensure that kids always have a place and that they have the support to fit in.

So, I believe that kids have a human right to be able to make friends.

As children, we make countless relationships (long and short) on the playground. Play is natural to children, and until we learn otherwise, play is open to others to join in (and to invite us in). Discrimination or the concept of “not like me” is a learned trait.

As a play designer, I subscribe to the “smorgasbord approach” to designing play environments. Every child learns differently and has different things they’d like to experience in a playground. This changes as they get older and move through their phases of development. Playground design should start with trying to accommodate a variety of play needs and desires.

The average person likely doesn’t know the full extent of disabilities that might influence a child’s ability to engage with play. Physical disabilities are the obvious ones, but account for only around 1% of disabilities. Good play design takes this “smorgasbord” of features and assembles them in a way that they begin to have order and cohesiveness. Order is an important way to begin to design for disabilities like autism spectrum disorders.

The point of this? Play design seeks to remove the barriers that might get in the way of a child experiencing play on their terms. Taking this “smorgasbord” and assembling it to accommodate a wide variety of children may require some minimal extra cost, intellectual consultation or perhaps adding a few play elements to maximize impact… but the results provide a high return on investment.

So… a roller rink forbade a child with a disability from being out on the rink.

Designing for physical disabilities can certainly result in extra costs, but I quote Justin Trudeau … it’s 2015! But, for the roller rink… actual access is not the issue. Their concern is liability and potential danger to other skaters.

I’m not writing this to discuss the specifics of this incident; it has been very well covered by others who are closer to it directly or from similar experiences.

The world is not an accessible place. It’s not naturally flat, and surfaces are not naturally hard. Access advocates are clever people, and they realize this. They know that there will be challenges, and some of them will be true obstacles. But, their request is that we let people choose what their obstacles will be. They are 1000% correct that sometimes we will be amazed with the ingenuity and initiative that drive the amazing. If we just say no, then we close the door to that opportunity.

Our built environment will have many places that are not easily accessible. Advocates are not asking that all places be made accessible. They just request that they be given the chance on their own volition to do things if they can achieve them similarly to others, without danger to others, and without danger to themselves that would create liability for others. It’s a fact that every person who is “able” is free to endanger everyone around them (and they frequently do). But, I won’t go into our freedom to do dumb things… although I’m finding it ironic that we limit people with disabilities when the abled are more often those who inflict true costs on our culture.

It’s so easy to retreat back to a place of liability. The United States certainly suffers from a very high level of fear of litigation. There is reality to this, but there is a cultural fear of the possibility that one might be sued. This means that society has trained itself to start from a place of “no”, and then slowly (if ever) move toward yes in an extremely ‘safe’ fashion. This is significantly different than beginning with the possible and crafting it in a careful and justified way.

I’ll go back to playground design. We have a responsibility to allow someone with a physical disability to get to the playground. Whether on a bus, or through an accessible parking space… they deserve to get to the same place as everyone else. That’s a legal fact of our society. We don’t necessarily make it as easy as it should be… but this is where we are. In 2015 everyone should be able to get to a parking lot or sidewalk that is reasonably close to a playground. We also have a responsibility that there is a reasonably direct way to get to the playground itself.

This is where things start to get amorphous. There are requirements for playgrounds to have a certain proportion of equipment that is accessible. (This accessible equipment could consist of the most boring pieces. Good play design isn’t a part of it.) So, your child should be able to get to the equipment to play with at least some of it, and interact with other children. But, they will likely get to a point where their friends move into a play experience that is not accessible. They are now disassociated from their friends.

Now… also realize this applies to parents. There will be parts of our playgrounds that might not allow you to interact with your children if you have a physical impairment. Just imagine that your child gets hurt (perhaps badly) and that you can’t get to them. Even though I don’t have children, I certainly empathize that this level of powerlessness could be devastating.

While it would be difficult to design all playgrounds to be fully accessible, we can make decisions that maximize the potential for interaction. There’s a reality that children love slides and climbing up high. Ramps can be provided, but they can be cost prohibitive. If you exclude those two playground needs, building a very highly inclusive playground based on ground level play elements is feasible for every community.

Play needs to be a community-level discussion. Every playground does not need to do all things for every child. For the same of this discussion, every child should have access to the play that they want/need within a reasonable distance of their house. This doesn’t mean that all playgrounds need to be fully inclusive, but it needs to mean that all playgrounds are designed intentionally to maximize their impact. Sometimes decisions will be made to provide that tall slide that provides children with an amazing sense of accomplishment for conquering their nervousness. When you provide that slide, you also need to ask yourself… how do we provide that same feeling for the kid that might never climb up there?

Inclusivity isn’t about providing access to every piece of play equipment, it’s about trying to provide different opportunities to experience the same benefit… and trying to maximize the opportunities for interaction. Can’t get to the top of the slide? Well, let me be waiting at the bottom to see my friend come down.

One of the best things for inclusivity on a playground is accessible play surfacing. But wow! It’s expensive and its cost could certainly be put into more play activities. But when properly done, it becomes a play activity in itself and these costs can be balanced. Play surfacing is a huge discussion of its own (that I’m always happy to have), but for the sake of this note… realize that it truly begins to eliminate obstacles for interaction.

Let’s get back to the roller rink. I remember going to the roller rink in my hometown for a birthday party. I was terrible at skating and I fell down. I risked wiping someone out and having them break an arm. I remember getting better (or I’d like to think I did), but also that I spent time off to the side with my friends. There were no obstacles for me other than my initiative and my learning curve. If I was TRULY bad and dangerous, I’m hoping that some adult would have assisted me to reduce my danger to others. There’s also a fact that on a roller rink, people skate in the same direction for a reason… you can watch everyone around you to minimize their (literal) impact on your life.

Liability can be controlled with paperwork. It can also be controlled by engaging with others. It can be controlled by supervision. It can be controlled by ten minutes of playing a slower song and calling it “beginners time” on the rink where everyone is asked to look out for one another, be encouraging, and support a love of cooperation and play for everyone.

It’s 2015. We’re all smart enough that we can control and minimize risk. More importantly, we should all be aware enough that inclusivity makes our community better. Let’s start with trying to figure something out and make it a “win win”.

It’s 2015. Let’s explain our concerns and see if the world is ready for new solutions.

Postscript#1: My frustration makes me add: Come on! We’re better than this! It’s freaking 2015!)

Postscript #2: I scanned through the comments on the ADN article (never a fully wise decision to do). I think that they reiterate that we should all just stop for a second and think about what being inclusive means. Also… inform ourselves. That might be asking too much.