Accessible Playgrounds


It’s not just about the playground equipment that make a park accessible

By Brittany Martin

A big part of the National ADA Symposium is sharing best practices so attendees can take that knowledge back home to their communities and find out ways they can create access for all abilities.

That’s just what Chris Noel, the accessibility coordinator for New York City Parks, did on the second day of the premier event on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas.

Part of Noel’s role is to work with the city’s landscape architects and engineers to inspect and make sure when they’re designing any playground, park, recreation center or project involving historic houses, that both children and adults with disabilities are taken into account. Before every new design is approved, they have a scope meeting to find out the needs of the community to be sure they’re spending the right amount of money in the right places.

“Once these playgrounds or parks are constructed, they’re there until we get more money to change it again,” Noel said.

Noel said New York City Parks is taking the baseline ADA code a few steps further to create a more inclusive experience for the city’s families.

“You’re a child on a playground, you get bored easily, so imagine a child with disability on a playground. What is there for them to do?” Noel said.

In new construction projects, Noel said they start with the surfacing to get to the park or playground because it makes no sense to build an accessible playground if a grass field surrounds it or wood chips and no one can get to it. They use asphalt, concrete, granite block pavers, safety surfaces with ADA ramp tiles and beach mats.

“So once you get them to the playground, obviously a child is going there with a parent, right? Or caregiver or aide,” Noel said. “So we want to make sure whoever they’re going with, their parent, their caregiver, their aide might have a disability. They might be a wheelchair user themselves.”

Next, they’ve included companion seating for wheelchair users in their amphitheaters, at their picnic and game tables and next to benches. A quarter of the picnic tables have accessible seating, which is far beyond what the ADA requires, Noel said.

When we talk about inclusion, it’s not just making our playgrounds accessible for people with disabilities,” he said. “Our playgrounds are accessible for people of all of abilities, and that’s the key. We don’t leave anyone out.”

Noel said it would cost them $4 million to renovate one 20-by-20 foot restroom facility, or “comfort station,” to create accessible stalls. So instead, each borough has brought in its own maintenance crew and rearranged the bathroom layout to make it more usable.

Many of the city’s parks now include outdoor gyms, and 50% or more of the equipment pieces are ADA compliant. They even went to their local major rehab centers to find out the correct height of parallel bars for the outdoor gyms.

“So, basically when you’re in rehab after a major injury, stroke, spinal-cord injury, anything, broken leg, you need to regain the use of your legs in some sort of way,” Noel said. “So you would need parallel bars. Our parks had parallel bars, but they were way too high and way too narrow. Usually it was for people to stretch on. They weren’t necessarily made as something to use for rehabilitation.”

But the improvements aren’t just limited to playgrounds. They provided a switchback ramp to account for the change in grade up to the top of outcroppings in the Manhattan/Bronx area so people could view the Hudson River and New Jersey.

When it comes to historic sites, they improved access at the Morris-Jamel Mansion in Upper Manhattan by working with the Landmarks Commission.

“They didn’t want to change these steps for many, many years,” Noel said. “So we used to bring out a makeshift ramp if we ever had a person with a disability to go up. How demeaning is that, right? You have to bring out a temporary ramp for me? And we even kept it wooden so it would kind of keep the architectural, historic theme.”

They made a design pitch to the Landmarks Commission to undercut the steps and grade the sidewalk up to the entryway. This is the same approach they take for all their parks and playgrounds now, Noel said, eliminating steps completely, even in the older parks.

Noel said he’s had to fight with community members on some historic building projects, such as a current one at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn.

“They wanted to keep their park as historic as it was, and … I talked to that community board and told them the importance of making it accessible for persons who were in that audience, once they become older, and want to visit this park 10, 20, 30 years from now, right?“ Noel said. “Well, they thought about it like that and said, ‘Yeah, I still want to visit my park.’”

Their reach extends to the city’s pools and bodies of water, as well. Noel said they recommend hydraulic pool lifts rather than battery-operated ones because it cost the city $70,000-$80,000 in parts every summer to maintain the battery-operated lifts in working order. At the city’s waterfronts for the next few years, they’re piloting an accessible kayak launching system from EZ Dock.

Overall, Noel said they do what they can to create more access in places it previously didn’t exist, but it comes down to local elected officials to give them the money to make the improvements.

“We try to make sure that even if we build a little bit, we make sure our playgrounds are accessible as possible, even older ones,” he said. “With a disability, that’s something you can’t change, right? If you’re disabled, you’re disabled. So what do you do? You change everything around the person so everyone can comply with it and every can be accommodated by it … I don’t need to fix me to fit into society. Society should fix itself to accommodate me, because once you accommodate me as a wheelchair user, you really accommodate everyone else. You make things more accessible for people in wheelchairs or persons with disabilities, everyone else is able to use the same features, so why not start from the beginning to make it accessible, not have to come back later and do modifications?”




Chris Noel, the accessibility coordinator for New York City Parks, talks about accessible playgrounds at the 21st National ADA Symposium. (Photo by Brittany Martin).
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