Oakledge for All—Vermont’s First Universally Accessible Playground
As I reflect on my journey as a parent of a child with special needs, one major theme emerges—it’s hard. Crazy hard, on so many levels—from day to day challenges, educational challenges, medical challenges, relationship challenges with your partner, friends, and community, and the ever-present guilt that most parents of special needs kids deal with daily. As caregivers, a big part of our lives is spent making accommodations for our kids. Trying to fit our kids into a world that’s not designed for them. Bathrooms, beds, school buildings, school desks, stairs, and playgrounds are not designed with our kids in mind.
As a result, our kids often end up sitting on the sidelines observing life, when all they want to do is live it.
One Vermont woman, special educator Julia Wayne, has been working tirelessly for over 10 years to change that by bringing a universally accessible playground to Oakledge Park in the south end of Burlington. If you’ve visited the park recently you may have noticed phase 1 of the playground is complete. There is a swing set, a large rocker with wheelchair access and a basket swing. All of the accessible playground equipment is designed for kids and adults with disabilities to play and be part of the fun. The next phase of the project includes a music garden, a giant slide that families can enjoy together and beautifully landscaped gardens that will provide sensory feedback with sight, smell and touch.
This project was Julia’s leadership goal developed out of her fellowship with the Vermont Interdisciplinary Leadership Educational for Health professionals (ILEHP.)
Julia was disheartened that many of her own students were missing vital experiences that playgrounds offer, like joy, exercise, freedom, and friendship.
While visiting California, Julia visited many of the state’s universally accessible playgrounds—from ground surfacing to equipment, the playgrounds were mostly barrier-free. Julia loved the idea of universal design – to build an accessible playground for everyone at the forefront, not an afterthought. She was inspired to build a universally accessible playground in Vermont. Julia contacted Burlington’s Parks and Recreation, assembled a group of dedicated volunteers—many are parents of kids with special needs, and began fundraising to make her dream a reality.
Oakledge for All is a volunteer initiative to build Vermont’s first universally accessible playground and is founded on the belief that everyone deserves to play.
Oakledge for All’s mission is to foster inclusion and strengthen the community by improving the accessibility of our community’s playgrounds and parks so that they are welcoming and fun for anyone who wants to enjoy them.
Vermont is home to tremendous recreational resources, yet children and adults with mobility, visual, sensory, and other challenges often cannot use existing play spaces safely, if at all – even in Burlington. An accessible playground at Oakledge Park will open the door for engagement, learning, connectedness, and pure enjoyment for everyone. Inclusive spaces strengthen communities by nurturing understanding, openness, and friendship.
A huge barrier for my disabled daughter, Ella was the ever-present need for the presence of my husband and me. We had to facilitate and assist any play for Ella because she was so severely disabled. Ella was never able to walk or talk, so for her to play my husband and I felt we had to be present to be her arms, legs, and voice. This was not so awkward and uncomfortable when Ella and her friends were little, but as she grew it became apparent that her friends were tired of always having us around.
As Ella’s source of protection and safety, my husband and I became a little too overprotective.
About a year before Ella passed away, she had two girlfriends over for a playdate. The girls were playing in Ella’s room and I sensed that I needed to leave them alone. Ella was laying on her belly on a large pillow on her bed watching the girls play on the floor with Barbies when I left the room. When I came back in to check on the girls, Ella was on the floor in the middle of the girls with Barbies placed in each hand. It took my breath away to see Ella in a different spot and I asked the girls how Ella got there. Casually they said, “We moved her, she wanted to be on the floor with us.”
I looked and Ella was sporting the biggest smile I’d ever seen and I knew the girls were right. Ella was right where she needed to be, in the middle of the action.
Children have great curiosity and instinct, and after we answered their questions honestly about Ella’s disability, they were always able to figure out how to engage and play with Ella. As soon as my husband and I stepped aside, the magic of cooperation, imagination, and friendship emerged.
I can only imagine the beautiful friendships and community engagement that will develop as a result of a barrier-free universally accessible playground.
How amazingly freeing for kids with physical disabilities to be able to safely swing next to their peers for the first time. Children with visual impairments will be able to navigate the playground without fears of tripping and falling on a hard concrete surface. Children with sensory issues can play in the space and take a break under a quiet tree when they become overwhelmed. People in wheelchairs will be able to access the playground because paths will be surfaced and made wide enough so the wheels of the chairs can glide easily. Most importantly, everyone will benefit from sharing the outdoor space together.
Oakledge Park holds a very special place in my family’s heart.
We held my daughter, Ella’s celebration of life ceremony at the park after she passed away 5 years ago at the age of 11. Our family spent many evenings sitting on the concrete wall by the beach watching the sunset together. We designed a safety harness system for our paddle boards so Ella could enjoy the lake in the summer with us.
One of the things that people seem to remember most about Ella was her radiant smile that sent laser beams of love straight to the heart of all that met her. I haven’t met a person who was not changed for the better by meeting her. Ella and kids and adults like her are a gift to us all — teaching us love, understanding, compassion, patience and so much more.
Providing a space for everyone and every BODY to enjoy is a huge asset to our community and our humanity, giving everyone a chance to learn from each other.
This playground is like nothing else in the state of Vermont. All the equipment is designed for everyone to use. For once, people with special needs are not an afterthought made quickly to fit into the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This playground is for all to play, to enjoy and to learn from each other. Our beautiful kids with special needs can be part of the action now, and do what all kids want to do most of all- PLAY!
On Saturday, May 18, 2019, 10 am -12 pm, Oakledge for All is holding a celebration to mark the completion of phase 1 of the project.
Come celebrate phase 1 of Oakledge for All, the region’s first universally accessible playground underway at Oakledge Park! Last fall, new swings overlooking the lake were installed. Now we’re gearing up to launch the next phase, which will include so much more.