Julie Kenerson loved taking her two sons to the Charlestown playground in Mayor Thomas M. Menino Park. Its accessible design allowed Lukas to play side-by-side with his brother Jake, who had a rare metabolic disorder and used a wheelchair. The playground has plenty of ramps and wheelchair-accessible swings. Lukas and Jake could spin on the carousel together and glide down slides at the same time.
They also loved Martin’s Park in the Seaport district, where they could go on adventures in the wooden fishing boat, which had a ramp at its entrance. But not all playgrounds were accessible for Jake.
“I'd be sitting here with Jake singing songs because there was really nothing for him to play with,” Kenerson said about the lack of wheelchair-friendly playground elements at many town playgrounds.
In 2019, Jake passed away at age 11 from complications of his CDG, congenital disorder of glycosylation. Since Jake’s death, his mom has been on a mission to make playgrounds more accessible — starting with their hometown of Arlington, where Kenerson is working with local officials to make playgrounds more welcoming to kids and caregivers with disabilities.
Over the past decade, playground accessibility has advanced due to more awareness and more options for designers. Parents like Kenerson are telling public officials and planners that more work still needs to be done to make them truly inclusive — and those in charge are listening. In Arlington, workers will start construction next month on a new playground design that incorporates Kenerson’s feedback.
“I really think a lot of people don't think about it because they don't have to,” she said. “But if they knew about it, they would actually care and they would want it to be better.”
ADA compliance is just the beginning
The landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which mandates equal access for people with disabilities in public spaces, was passed in 1991, but didn’t specifically address outdoor recreation in its original regulations. Updated guidance came in 2010, and any playground that is now built or renovated must be ADA-compliant.
But, Kenerson says, that ADA standard for playgrounds is a bare minimum and doesn’t necessarily make playgrounds inclusive for kids like Jake. She is raising awareness about the gap between what she calls “ADA on paper and the lived experience of ADA,” which takes some extra effort to address.
“One of my main themes is: play should be for everybody,” she said. “But we have to design the spaces so that play can be for everyone.”
The responsibility for making the playground accessible depends on where it’s located. It could be overseen by a local town parks department, a city department, the statewide recreation departments or a school or a daycare.
Watch: Jake plays on an accessible carousel
Last year, Arlington made plans to update several school playgrounds on town land. Officials decided to use funds the town received under the American Rescue Plan Act to renovate the Stratton Elementary School playground and two others.
When the town put out a survey to gather feedback from residents, Kenerson, a sixth grade teacher in Wellesley public schools, saw an opportunity to share her family’s story. She started meeting with town officials, the Stratton principal and the vendor who would be supporting the project.
“I was the one who was asking questions about accessibility,” she said. “I come from the lens of having gone to playgrounds with an able-bodied kid and a kid in a wheelchair.”
One sticking point, literally, was the ground surface material. The original plan had mulch in the design — which is technically ADA-compliant, but not easy to navigate for some kids or caregivers.
“What I know as a parent of a kid in a wheelchair is, as soon as you get to mulch, it's so hard to move a wheelchair,” Kenerson said. The surface is also difficult for a visually impaired person who uses a cane, or anyone who uses a walker.
Kenerson recalls a meeting in which the playground designer pointed out several elements that made the playground accessible by ADA standards, including a staircase with a bottom stair large enough to allow kids in wheelchairs to transfer themselves out of their wheelchair — a practice that requires upper body strength that not all wheelchair-using kids have.
Other elements that were technically ADA-compliant: one of the bridges was tall enough to allow a wheelchair underneath, and there was a “social space” for kids in wheelchairs to play with other kids.
"I come from the lens of having gone to playgrounds with an able-bodied kid and a kid in a wheelchair."-Julie Kenerson
Town officials and planners were receptive to conversations about accessibility once Kenerson raised concerns, and her work paid off: all three designs that were put out for bids in March will have rubberized surfaces, not mulch. The Stratton playground will also have an accessible carousel and a wheelchair-accessible picnic table.
The town plans to start construction in June to get the playground ready for the start of the school year. Joe Connelly, director of the town’s recreation department, says there is no question about Kenerson’s impact on the final playground designs.
“She really raised the level of, ‘Hey, look — checking the box that it meets ADA really isn't where we want to be as a town,’” he said. “‘We should strive for more.’”
Towns and cities look through a new lens
In some ways, Arlington was already ahead of the curve on accessibility. In 2014, the town worked with the Institute for Human Centered Design to conduct a self-analysis of accessibility in the town’s recreation activities. Connelly believes that Arlington was the only town recreation department who conducted such a study to inform future design. Now, the rest of the state is catching up.
There are plenty of obstacles to reaching true inclusivity for kids like Jake, playground planners and town officials say. It depends on a variety of factors for each municipality: awareness, resources, maintenance costs, size of space and, of course, budget.
Connelly says that the poured-in rubber surface that is considered most accessible can be at least five times as expensive as mulch, which can force towns with a limited budget into a tough balancing act between accessibility and having less money to spend on equipment.
The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees more than 70 playgrounds across the commonwealth, is currently working on plans to renovate the Marine Park Playground in South Boston in fall 2022.
“In terms of the accessibility in the play area, our designers and the department always now go above and beyond what is a minimum requirement by law,” said Tom McCarthy, director of the DCR'S Universal Access Program. “Whatever those requirements are, we do go beyond those.”
The renovated ocean-themed Marine Park will feature more accessible paved paths, rubber surfacing throughout and accessible picnic tables and swings. Elevated play areas will be connected with ramps.
Going “above and beyond” on accessibility means that the DCR thinks about all types of disabilities, McCarthy says. Plans incorporate bright contrasting colors and tactile elements for kids who may be blind or low-vision, special elements for kids who have different small motor abilities and quiet spaces for kids who have autism.
Sandra Libby, a playground planner at the DCR says that, even in the last decade, “so many more options” for playground elements have become available, like large gliders that can fit a wheelchair and rock back and forth. She said the new creative solutions give planners like her more ways to make playgrounds accessible.
Kenerson’s advocacy left a mark on Arlington. She says she has already seen that the town officials in Arlington are starting to bring up accessibility in design conversations without being prompted. Connelly also plans to work with Kenerson on future design projects.
Many families of kids with disabilities don’t have time to do advocacy work, Kenerson says, because they are busy with their jobs and caring for their children. She hopes her collaboration can serve as a model for all towns.
“It's been two and a half years since [Jake] passed away, and I actually feel like I have time in my life now to do this advocacy work, and it still means a lot,” Kenerson said. “So on a very personal level, I feel like I'm honoring my son by helping all of his friends and all people like him.”