Visitors from age 1 to 101 may utilize a walkerOver one in ten children, and even more adults, live with a disability. Is your playspace welcoming to people with special needs? Your current playspace might never be used by children and adults with disabilities, but perhaps it's because they can't access the playspace and/or structures. Your new or renovated playspace can make everyone feel welcome with some simple considerations.

Often, we think of wheelchairs when we hear the word special needs, but people have a wide variety of special needs that strangers and acquaintances might not be able to see. For example, people living with illnesses often need special medical accommodations. People with cognitive impairments or mental health diagnoses from injuries or genetic disorders might need extra help navigating daily tasks. Some people with visual disabilities may read signs in Braille.

In reality we're simply not able to easily know the special needs of the majority of the individuals within our community. The best way to plan an inclusive playspace for everyone is to make your space as accessible as possible, using the principles of universal design.

If your playspace is a community space, consider designing it so the whole community can use it.

Tips and considerations for creating an inclusive playspace, by topics:

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Auditory Disabilities

Children play with water tableChildren and adults with auditory disabilities will find your playspace accessible, safe, and enjoyable when you keep a few considerations in mind.

The degree of hearing loss varies greatly from person to person. Approximately 1 to 3 children in 1000 are born with hearing loss, but many children also experience trouble hearing from colds and ear infections.

Occasionally, plastic slides and equipment cause static interference for children with cochlear implants. Static isn't harmful but can give a shock to the child or make the implant temporarily ineffective. An audiologist can reboot the hearing device. Researchers are trying to develop plastic equipment for playspaces that won't interfere with cochlear implants.

For children with mild to severe hearing impairments, be sure to include lots of visual and tactile elements at your playspace:

  • Bright, but not overstimulating, colors throughout
  • Use of colors and symbols to signify meaning and place
  • Frequent, large signs using both words and pictures
  • Plenty of tactile toys like manipulatives and fingerpaints
  • Plenty of room between equipment

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Autism Spectrum Disorders

Child plays in quiet spaceChildren with various autism spectrum and other sensory integration disorders might struggle with the increased levels of sensory stimulation at a playspace. Their nervous systems (senses) over-respond and they might behave disruptively or in ways that seem strange to others.

With certain considerations, however, children with sensory integration disorders can enjoy your playspace and even thrive there. Incorporating a few special calming spaces into your playspace provides children with autism spectrum and sensory integration disorders, as well as all children, an opportunity to peacefully re-focus and re-center.

Your calming places might be a separate room in an indoor play area or a cave in a playground. These can be tunnels or any place children can be apart from the chaos of the play. These special places integrate the need for calm with the need for excitement. For children with sensory integration disorders and autism spectrum disorders, this need can be acute.

What does this room or cave look like?

  • Few windows or openings
  • Quiet but accessible to the flow of the play area
  • Insulated against outside sound
  • Neutral or white colors
  • Soft surfaces

If indoors:

  • White floor mats and pillows
  • Consider including fiber optic lights and projectors
  • Calming music and nature sounds
  • Tactile blankets and pillows
  • Vestibular swing system

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Cognitive Impairments

Girl playing tic-tac-toeChildren with cognitive impairments might have greater difficulty with one or more types of mental tasks than a peer who is typically developing. There are too many types of cognitive impairments to list here, each unique to the individual. Cognitive impairments can impact a child's memory, judgement, perception, planning, orientation, concentration, or attention.

Simple things can be done to support children with cognitive impairments in your playspace:

  • Design for safety
  • Include a variety of challenge levels in your playspace activity areas
  • Be sure to have a variety of activities to hold attention
  • Use color-coded pathways to support memory of areas within your playspace

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Mobility Impairments

Child plays with accessible panel at playgroundYou can help parents and children who use mobility devices enjoy your playspace by providing accessible routes, surfaces, and play equipment. If your playspace is accessible, adult caregivers who use mobility devices can more easily play with their children and truly enjoy your playspace!

Routes should:

  • Be at least 60 inches wide
  • Be bordered from loose-fill material
  • Have a maximum slope of 1:12 (1:20 Universal design standard)
  • If sloped, have plenty of platforms for resting
  • Read more on routes

Surfaces under and around accessible structures should:

  • Be pour-in-place rubber or another safe, accessible material (loose materials are not accessible for the most part)
  • Be wide enough to provide safe, accessible landing
  • Provide access to the structure
  • Read more on surfaces

Structures should:

  • Have accessible entries and exits (ramps or transfer stations)
  • Provide handgrips, rails, or holds
  • Provide support as necessary

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Person-first Language

Child swings from hanging barAdults and children with disabilities are people first, just like everybody else. When you talk to them or about them, talk about who they are instead of their disability. Talk about what they can do instead of what they can't. Avoid condescension by lavishing people with disabilities with praise and attention. Independence is important, so let people with disabilities do and say as much as possible without your help.

The PACER Center provides these tips:

It's the Person First, Then the Disability (2005)

Say... Instead of...
child with a disability disabled or handicapped child
person with cerebral palsy C.P., spastic
person who is deaf or hard of hearing deaf and dumb
person with a cognitive or intellectual disability mentally retarded, retard
person with epilepsy or person with seizure disorder epileptic
person who has... afflicted, suffers from, victim
without speech, nonverbal mute, dumb
developmental delay slow
emotional disorder or mental illness crazy, insane, mentally ill
uses a wheelchair confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
with Down syndrome mongoloid, retard
has a learning disability is learning disabled
developing typically normal, healthy
has a physical disability crippled
congenital disability birth defect
condition disease (unless it is a disease)
seizures fits or spells
cleft lip hare lip
mobility impaired lame
medically involved, has a chronic illness sickly
paralyzed invalid or paralytic
has hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body) hemiplegic
has quadriplegia (paralysis of both arms and legs) quadriplegic
has paraplegia (loss of function in lower body only) paraplegic
of short stature dwarf or midget
accessible parking handicapped parking

(Photo courtesy of Kompan)

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Visual Disabilities

Child plays in accessible water parkThere are a variety of ways to make your playspace accessible and inviting for children and adults with visual impairments. By doing so, you will probably find your playspace is easier for everyone

Visual impairments are generally divided into two categories: blindness and low vision. Only 10-15% of people with visual impairments are clinically blind. The remainder of people experience very low vision.

Post frequent, easy-to-locate signs in:

  • Braille
  • Large print
  • Contrasting colors

Keep your playspace bright and well-lit, so children and adults with low vision can see more easily.

Add auditory elements into your playspace:

  • Musical areas
  • Sound tubes
  • Recordings

Provide tactile stimulation:

  • Blocks and manipulatives
  • Sand and water areas
  • Large objects

All children, with and without visual impairments, can play together with these elements.

(Photo courtesy of the Free Play Network)

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