Accessible Playgrounds in Juneau a Work in Progress

National Public Radio launched Playgrounds for Everyone this week looking at how communities and local governments are adapting to new standards for playgrounds that make them more accessible for children with disabilities. KTOO wanted to know how Juneau’s playgrounds measure up.

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Kids play on the climbing web at Glacier Valley Elementary School.

It’s recess at Glacier Valley Elementary School. A dozen kids run straight to a piece of playground equipment that looks like a three dimensional spider web. They climb onto the webbing where they hover ten feet off the ground. Elsewhere in the playground, students crawl up ladders, go down slides, pump their legs on swings.

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But not all kids can access the playground so easily.

Cindle Stolarik is a special education teacher at Glacier Valley. She teaches eight students in kindergarten to fifth grade. They have a range of abilities and disabilities including “cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, and traumatic brain injury.”

For two students in wheelchairs, the school playground equipment can be a challenge.

“It definitely would be helpful if there were wheelchair ramps and swings that accommodated our students. I feel like we make it work and we incorporate our students. We get them out of the wheelchairs and we make sure they can participate with their friends but it would definitely be easier if it was more accessible,” Stolarik says.

Para-educator Jamie Lachester works with one of these students during recess.

“I help him transfer out of his wheelchair into the rubber chip area because he will crawl around and that’s softer on his knees. When it comes to getting up on the equipment, I will help him go up the stairs and then stand very close proximity to him as he is crawling around make sure he doesn’t slide of the sides because it gets very slippery,” Lachester says.

Juneau has a total of 17 playgrounds with play equipment – 11 in city parks and six in the schools.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that playgrounds are built to be accessible for all children. That means making it possible for every child, including those with disabilities, to get on and off, as well as move around the equipment.

Slides and play equipment at Twin Lakes playground.

The playground at Twin Lakes was built in 2007 and Project Playground is currently in phase 2 of the project. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Project Playground at Twin Lakes is supposed to do just that.

Chris Mertl is a landscape architect with Corvus Design:

“The idea with transfer platforms is a child in a wheelchair can use their upper body strength and pull themselves out of the chair and get onto the pieces of play equipment. We’re also fortunate here at Project Playground that we have ramps, so kids in chairs and walkers can actually go up the ramps systems and get into the higher elevation play elements.”

Southeast Alaska Independent Living, or SAIL, is one of the organizations that helped get Project Playground built in 2007. SAIL executive director Joan O’Keefe says it was supposed to be an ADA showcase.

“There’s a number of accessible features over there, but unfortunately it’s difficult for someone who uses a wheelchair to get to those features.”

Like other Juneau playgrounds, the surface beneath the play equipment at Twin Lakes is covered with what looks like wood chips. They’re actually shredded rubber pieces, which are good for cushioning a fall but terrible for moving a wheelchair through.

O’Keefe hopes phase two of Project Playground can fix the problem. The goal is to createpathways that start at the playground’s entrance and connect different pieces of equipment at the transfer platforms.

Compressed rubber bricks

The next step for Project Playground is to create pathways from compressed blocks of shredded rubber that would give a more solid surface for equipment to travel over. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Landscape architect Mertl says the pathways can be made from the same shredded rubber…

“but what it is is it’s bound together so we have a fairly stable solid surface that still has the same impact absorption capacity as the loose stuff but it allows wheelchairs to get over it, it allows people with walkers or crutches that they’re not going to get buried into the loose stuff.”

Mertl says this type of surfacing is expensive. A cost estimate is over $110,000.

“It’s all up to funding. We have a playground that is functional, but can we go further and make it better? Of course we can.”

Phase two of Project Playground is currently on the city’s parks and recreation priority list but funds won’t be made available until at least 2016.

Additional reporting by Heather Bryant.
Use our map to find a playground near you.

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Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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