Missy Buss, a 9-year-old who can’t walk or talk, endures a 45-minute drive to the closest swing that will accommodate a wheelchair — a treat that relaxes her shoulders and coaxes a smile.

Her mom, Wendy Grossman, thinks there would be more friends around the house if a playground near their Tarentum home allowed Missy to play alongside others.

Cheryl Dennis of Squirrel Hill talks about “the coolest” playground in the Pittsburgh area, but it’s a place she can’t take her son, Spencer, to play with his sisters because he has balance and coordination problems.

“We’re a family with a disability,” she said. “When there’s something that Spencer can’t do, it’s often something we all can’t do.”

The U.S. Department of Justice made access to play areas a civil right under the Americans with Disabilities Act when, in 2010, it adopted stringent standards that require playgrounds to have surfaces and equipment that can be used by disabled children. The requirements became effective last year.

Parents and advocates want still more. They want “inclusive” playgrounds, spots that are fun and safe for both typical children and those with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“Play is an important social opportunity for children,” said Jeni Hergenreder, an attorney with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. “To be able to play on public playgrounds with other kids … is important for their inclusion in all aspects of community life.”

The rules of play

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Photos by Alexandra Kanik

New federal requirements attempt to change the playground experience, from the ground a play area sits on to how play structures are connected and how children wander through them.

However, public playgrounds are not required to be up to those standards unless they have been built or modified after March 15, 2012.

Many playgrounds remain unwelcoming for disabled children.

PublicSource asked Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Public Schools for a list of accessible playgrounds.

Allegheny County responded that 11 of its 73 play areas are accessible.

In those 11, County Spokeswoman Amie Downs said, ramps allow children using wheelchairs or other mobility devices to move around the play equipment. Smooth rubberized surfaces cushion falls, and on some playgrounds, swings have roller coaster-style harnesses and high backs.

“As we continue to make changes and improvements through our facilities and with services … we will be continuing to keep accessibility as a goal,” Downs said.

The city could not say which of its 132 play areas are accessible to the disabled. Safety surfaces have been or are being replaced on 32 playgrounds, according to Public Works Assistant Director Chuck O’Neill.

An evaluation of the playgrounds and what must be done to make them accessible will start this year, said Pittsburgh’s ADA coordinator Richard Meritzer.

“We will hopefully very quickly have an inventory of what needs to be done,” he said.

Federal rules govern the surfaces used, how they are maintained, and the use of ramps around and through play equipment, along with other material and design features that affect accessibility.

Pittsburgh Public Schools has 37 playgrounds, 31 of which are compliant with ADA law, according to the school district.  Many of the 37 playgrounds are fenced, and the surfaces are paved.  About 4,800 students with disabilities, including learning disorders, attend city schools.

It is unclear if the school playgrounds adhere to the 1991 or the 2010 ADA standards because details on the surfaces and play equipment were not readily available, said Schools Spokeswoman Ebony Pugh.

A community that plays together

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Pittsburgh Pioneer Principal Sylbia Kunst talks about the sensory garden and play area designed for her students, who have multiple disabilities and medical conditions. (Audio by Halle Stockton,  photos by Alexandra Kanik / PublicSource)

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pittsburgh Pioneer serves students with multiple disabilities and fragile medical conditions. The Brookline school is home to a unique recreational area.

A sensory garden features fragrant plants, water bubbling from a rock and outdoor musical instruments like steel drums and musical benches. Children reliant on 500 to 800 pounds of wheelchair and medical equipment still get to swing.  And a smooth, flat path provides an ideal surface for therapeutic bicycling.

“We really felt that we wanted to be able to allow our students to have the full range of outdoor activities that every other student is entitled to,” said Pioneer Principal Sylbia Kunst.

Play areas such as this rarely happen without a groundswell of support by parents, educators and donors, Kunst said, since high costs are a deterrent for many local governments and agencies.

The city pays an average of $73,000 to replace each playground safety surface, O’Neill with Public Works wrote in an email.

Pittsburgh Pioneer teachers and parents discussed for months what their children needed for recreation; they obtained a $100,000 grant from the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust to pay for it.

Allegheny County received about $782,000 over three years from GameTime Playground Equipment, an Alabama manufacturer that sets aside grant funds to help parks, schools and other youth organizations build play areas.

The Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation is raising $2.2 million to reach its goal of building 56 accessible play systems throughout 120 state parks.

The foundation built one playground that cost about $25,000 last year at Sam Lewis State Park in York. It includes an accessible swing and a spinner with back support and easy entrance from a wheelchair or walker, said Foundation President Marci Mowery.

Play with me, too

Many parents see the federal requirements as the “bare minimum,” said Cheryl Dennis, the mother from Squirrel Hill, who formed a support group for parents of disabled children called Amazing Parents.

In an inclusive playground, not only can all children reach the slides and swings, but playing also means stimulating their hearing, smelling and feeling. It’s a place where typical children and those with special needs are safe, engaged and accepted.

Jace Grudowski, 10, plugs his ear to muffle loud noises at The Children’s Institute playground in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Alexandra Kanik)

The playground at the Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill caters to children like Jace Grudowski who use its special education and rehabilitation programs, but the colorful oasis is also used by those who live in the neighborhood.

Ten-year-old Jace often flees to the perimeter of the playground with two fingers in his ear because he is sensitive to the squeals and stomping of other children. He has a severe speech impediment and trouble interacting with others.

Jace has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

His mother, Kelly, said when he’s at the institute’s playground, it’s easier for her because she doesn’t have to explain his behavior to everyone.

“People not looking at him like he’s different, not treating him like he’s different is a very big deal to us,” she said.

For children to have fun, learn and bond with others, playground environments must be accepting to their users, Dennis said. “I think we have a long way to go as a society.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or at hstockton@publicsource.org.

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Halle is executive director, editor-in-chief of PublicSource. She has served as editor-in-chief since May 2022 after seven years as managing editor during which PublicSource won two consecutive international...