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Her son’s wheelchair got stuck in the playground. She raised $600,000 to build one for all kids.

Fifth-grader Owen Chaidez, 10, at recess at Hillcrest Elementary School in Downers Grove, Ill. Owen’s mother raised $600,000 to build a playground at his school that’s fully accessible for students with physical and cognitive disabilities.
Fifth-grader Owen Chaidez, 10, at recess at Hillcrest Elementary School in Downers Grove, Ill. Owen’s mother raised $600,000 to build a playground at his school that’s fully accessible for students with physical and cognitive disabilities. TNS

Before the start of first grade four years ago, Owen Chaidez excitedly waited on the playground at Hillcrest Elementary School in Downers Grove. But when the bell rang and his friends ran inside, the boy, who uses a wheelchair, became stuck in the wood chips covering the playground’s surface. His mother found him moments later, crying and alone.

“The more he tried to dig out of it … the deeper he was getting in the wood chips,” Peg Chaidez said. “I promised him that day I would do something to make a difference.”

Last month, Chaidez, 46, made good on her promise when Owen cut the ribbon welcoming the public to “Owen’s Playground.” The $600,000, fully accessible playground at the District 58 school is designed to be used by all students — including those with physical and cognitive disabilities.

With extra-wide ramps, rubberized flooring, sensory stations and other custom-designed features, the playground is the latest in a wave of inclusive playgrounds being built across the Chicago area in recent years.

Just like any move toward equality, it’s a slow march sometimes.

Heather Binder, development and outreach manager for Rebuilding Together Aurora

The passionate parents and nonprofit organizations behind them say they couldn’t wait for cash-strapped communities and school districts to find the time and money to follow rules laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act requires all playgrounds to offer equipment, materials and designs that provide children with disabilities the same play opportunities as other children.

“For many communities and many school districts, they’re working hard to accommodate students in the classroom.” said Heather Binder, development and outreach manager for Rebuilding Together Aurora. “Sometimes they don’t have enough bandwidth to look beyond those four walls.”

So the nonprofit partnered with a local volunteer project, Gateway to Laughter, and last month, they completed an inclusive playground at John Gates Elementary School, the hub for students with disabilities in the East Aurora school district. Before the playground was remodeled, five classrooms of students with disabilities were regularly left on the sidelines at recess, Binder said.

Today, they play alongside their classmates on six pieces of equipment built by volunteer contractors and laborers. The structures, including spinning contraptions and musical stations, were designed to be accessible for typical children and those with mobility impairment or cognitive disabilities, Binder said.

“Just like any move toward equality, it’s a slow march sometimes,” Binder said. “We just felt really compelled to go above and beyond.”

For many decades, there were no enforceable standards for playgrounds across the country. In 2010, a section was added to the Americans with Disabilities Act that for the first time required new or remodeled playgrounds to include, among other guidelines, low-sitting structures for someone using a wheelchair, said Sherril York, executive director of the National Center on Accessibility.

Since then, York said, she has noticed a growing number of playground equipment manufacturers offering products that take into account children and caregivers with special needs, she said.

Chicago playgrounds all meet the latest ADA standards, with offerings including bucket seating on swings for children who might not be able to sit upright, said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District.

And once parents of children with disabilities — or caregivers with special needs themselves — learned of the new requirements and possibilities, grass-roots efforts to build state-of-the-art playgrounds grew across the country, as it has in the Chicago area, York said.

In Elmhurst, Ill., the community’s Park District is scheduled to open “The Playground for Everyone” in November, after years of partnering with nonprofits for fundraisers and planning. Each year, the municipality designates $350,000 to remodel of one of its 18 playgrounds. That sum covers the design and construction of a playground that meets ADA standards, including smooth surfaces and low structures.

But advocates for people with special needs in Elmhurst dreamed of a playground that would go beyond the bare minimum: additional handicapped parking spaces nearby, double-wide ramps where children using wheelchairs could pass each other, and ample seating for caregivers, who are often left without a place to rest, said Ginger Wade, marketing director for the Elmhurst Park District.

Together with a nonprofit group called Special Kids Day and several other community groups, the Park District raised an additional $250,000 to create The Playground for Everyone, which is now under construction.

“We’ve always had playgrounds that were accessible, but this is kind of taking that to the next level,” said Wade, who mentioned similar projects in Wheaton and South Elgin. “It’s like when you go to the restaurant and they have one thing that’s gluten-free. This is where it’s all gluten-free. The specialty becomes the standard. Now I think it’s becoming more and more expected.”

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