Clayton agrees to help fund playground for special-needs children

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2014 

A wheelchair-friendly playground is coming to Clayton but not before some serious fundraising.

The Town Council on Monday put its stamp of approval on a public-private partnership that will build the playground within East Clayton Community Park at 1774 Glen Laurel Road. The Clayton Parks and Recreation Department will join private citizens in the partnership.

Called a “universal playground,” it will have five pods, or sections, of specialized structures that give easy access to children with special needs. The structures would allow them to swing, explore and play with other children.

“I’m ecstatic about this,” Councilman Jason Thompson said.

Yvonne Futterer led a focus group on the universal playground, and on Monday, she presented the group’s recommendations to the council. The group asked the council to endorse the public-private partnership and to help pay for a professional site designer. The council said yes to both requests.

Clayton Parks and Recreation director Larry Bailey said his staff saw the need for a universal playground as it looked to install more playground equipment around town. “We were realizing there are limitations of what certain populations can use,” he said.

At most playgrounds, the material on the ground is mulch or sand, something hard for people in wheelchairs to navigate. The universal playground would have rubber matting that would cushion a fall but also be easy for special-needs children to roll across.

Now that park boosters have the council’s blessing, “we’re just hoping it can move forward,” Bailey said. “A lot of it will depend on funding.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1992, any playground equipment installed by Clayton would have to be accessible to people with disabilities.

“But Clayton wants to take it a step further and make sure it’s a place where everyone can play and everyone can play together,” said town public information officer Stacy Beard.

One family that would benefit from the new playground are the Langs, who live just down the road from East Clayton Community Park. Daughter Erin, 13, has cerebral palsy on the autism spectrum. The brunette girl uses a wheelchair and walks with the help of a bright-orange walker. She loves to spin, bounce and swing.

“On all the other playgrounds, the most she can do is swing,” said her mother Candace Lang. “She craves that sensory input, and this equipment would give her that sensory input.”

Though Erin can swing for a while, Lang said, “she eventually gets off so she can give other kids a turn, and then she is just standing there.

“She needs more things that she can sit in, things she can walk up. She is 13 now and wants that independence.”

Erin cannot join her 9-year-old sister, Samantha, who does not have cerebral palsy.

“Samantha plays on any other piece of equipment,” Lang said. The new playground would have ramps and other features that would allow her daughters to play together.

“It just makes sense,” Futterer said about bringing in the universal playground. “There’s no question about it.”

Gesturing to the Langs, she said, “This family right here, one with special needs and the other without, they can’t take their children to the same park to play.”

Possible structures include one that rocks back and forth; children in wheelchairs could roll into the structure and join the fun. Another might be a sand table “that someone with a wheelchair could slide up to and put their hands in,” Beard said.

Other possibilities: a treehouse with a ramp going up to it, a large xylophone that children could strike with a mallet to make music and swings big enough for a wheelchair.

No one knows for sure how much the playground will cost, but what Beard called “a best guess” is $400,000. The site design might cost 15-20 percent of that. After the site plan is in place, the focus group could begin asking manufacturers for bids on playground equipment, Beard said.

Futterer said Caterpillar has already agreed to cover the cost of site preparation. “Caterpillar considers this playground to be right in its backyard,” she said.

Beard said she expects funding options to emerge from the Town Council’s retreat next week. Funding will decide how much equipment will go into the park.

“Playground equipment is very expensive,” Beard said. “Let alone playground equipment that is manufactured and built for children with special needs.”

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