Need for a park or playground that includes needs of children with disabilities

Summer often finds parents keen on identifying leisure activities to keep children occupied - summer camps, sports coaching, games at the neighbourhood park or playground. But with special schools closing for summer, parents of children with disabilities are hard put to find recreational facilities that include needs of their children.

The right to play is one of the recognised rights in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which India is a signatory, but public and private play facilities often overlook needs of children with disabilities. Though special schools in the city incorporate play in form of devices and activities, these are often situated indoors. Special schools have limited space for outdoor games or for swings and slides, admits Shanthakumar, directors, Spastics Society of Tiruchi.

Playgrounds that include all

Sirakugal, the parents association of special children in the district, has appealed to the district administration for a park that is suited for children with mental disabilities. “Mentally retarded children have little opportunity to participate in parks, swimming pools, common playgrounds, chiefly due to social stigma, apart from unsuitability of facilities,” says Sundaram, president of the association. Such a facility would also allow parents of special children who spend ample energy and time on their wards, some relaxation.

For a special child, play can enrich development in various spheres; play also calms down hyperactivity, which is a common feature in children with mental disabilities. For autistic kids, play is also a means of sensory integration, notes K.Geetha, director, Pravaag Transitional Centre for Autism.

Parental awareness of play is a prerequisite, as parents often undermine the importance of playing with water, sand or clay, she adds. The necessity for more coaches skilled in training special children also arises as a simple activity like catching a ball requires training in eye contact, object tracking, and gripping skills for an autistic child.

Participatory design

Instead of a special park, an integrated park which incorporates needs of disabled children, may reinforce the evolving of an inclusive society, feels Sheila Christopher, associate professor, department of rehabilitation science, Holy Cross College. The department that conducted a study of a local park, recommends a public-private/ NGO partnership or participatory design process which ensures families of children with disabilities have their say in the planning and design of parks modelled as ‘all abilities play space’. Children with a range of disabilities, including autism, severe mobility impairment, and multiple disabilities were identified in the vicinity of the centrally located Ibrahim Park. Researchers recorded children’s use of park equipment, their interactions with other children, attitudes of parents and general public. They also interviewed children, parents, general park users and non-users.

Modify to include

Suggestions included emphasis on striking a balance between equipment like climbers, sliders and swings, and natural components like vegetation, trees, water and birds, are to ensure that children create their own play. Some modifications can benefit both toddlers and differently abled children like replacing traditional pommel seats with a hard seat complete with back support or placing sand tables and other equipment at varying heights. Safety surfacing ensuring children with walkers, wheelchairs or other support devices are safe; barrier-free pathway; strategically placed benches allowing supervision by parents and caregivers; ensuring play equipment can be easily grasped and manipulated, and additional assistance like handrail, grab bars were other recommendations.

However, technical means alone would not help if social barriers are not addressed, insists the study. “When parents and children (special) were asked if they play out or go to the local park, the answer was too often, ‘no’. The reasons given were usually to do with fears and isolation rather than the accessibility or the design of the park,” Ms. Sheila, quotes.