Children with Disabilities Enjoy Rose Park’s New Playground
With the opening of the new all-inclusive playground at Rose Park last fall, Meagan Kirk now has a place for all six of her kids, four able bodied and two disabled, to enjoy themselves.
Kirk is the executive director of the Joseph Thomas Foundation, a non-profit that assists medically fragile children with medical equipment and services. Her family was one of the first to enjoy the new playground.
“The fact that we can go to a park where there might be perfectly able-bodied kids and differently abled kids and they can play together is a huge movement forward,” Kirk said. “As a parent, I can now take my kids somewhere they can all play and be kids together.”
A need for all-inclusive parks
More than 3 million children in the U.S. have special needs, roughly 4 percent of the under-18 population. Yet only two in five parks and recreation agencies across the country have a formal inclusion policy ensuring all members of a community can access and enjoy what the parks have to offer, according to a report by the National Recreation and Park Association.
Abilene’s Rose Park now features a “parallel” playground, which means those with disabilities can play alongside anyone else thanks to the accommodating equipment.
Features on the playground include drums, titan chimes, supine chimes, metallophone, an inclusive spinner, a Brava universal swing a Volito multi-user swing, two ADA-compliant swings, a nucleus cruiser glider and two new benches. Artificial turf covers the entire play area.
Jesus Coronado, Abilene parks division manager, believes the new equipment will benefit many special needs children, including his brother who has Down syndrome. Growing up, they found it difficult to use a typical playground.
“Looking back, I wish I would’ve had something like this and spent more time with him outside playing,” Coronado said. “That’s why this means a lot to me.”
From the Abilene community, the response has been nothing but positive. In addition to all the equipment, the park features natural shade, which provides further support to those with hearing, sensory or walking
impairments. For Chris Gibson, the assistant director of Abilene’s Parks and Recreation department, this playground is a win-win. Gibson said his department has wanted to build a playground like this for a while, but the pieces finally came together in the last year.
“One of my favorite things, and I don’t get to do it near as much as I’d like to, is coming out to the parks and seeing these kids running around and having a good time playing with each other,” Gibson said. “Whenever you have a big project like this, and all those little kids are sitting there, and you let them go or they take off and [see] the smiles on their face and how excited everybody is, that’s what makes it all worth it.”
All-inclusive parks are becoming more common. A 2018 poll by the National Recreation and Park Association discovered 9 in 10 Americans believe every city should have these playgrounds. Currently, 18 inclusive playgrounds are scattered throughout Texas.
Jaime Thomas, vice chair of Abilene’s Disability Advisory Council, used models from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to pitch the idea to the Abilene Parks and Recreation department. In Thomas’ role, she works to make Abilene more inclusive and accessible to everyone.
“This playground not only adapts to those with disabilities, but it brings everyone together,” Thomas said. “It sparks communication and questions and starts getting people together that wouldn’t likely end up in the same place.”
What the park means for Abilene
Amazing, meaningful, impactful and incredible are a few words used to describe the new playground from advocates like Kirk and Thomas.
The playground’s ribbon cutting took place the morning of Sept. 30 after a year of construction and planning. This is the first of 27 parks in Abilene to be all-inclusive.
In total, the playground cost roughly $500,000 with some labor being done by city employees to limit cost. Rose Park is centrally located at 2605 S 7th St. and was the oldest park needing equipment to be replaced. Before COVID-19, plans were already in place to build an all-inclusive park. However, due to the pandemic, the opening was delayed.
Lesli Andrews, director of Abilene Parks and Recreation, said her department will continue to build playgrounds like these.
“The conversation we’re having today is looking to enhance or improve or bring things to the citizens of Abilene that they want, that we need, constantly looking for how can we make things better,” Andrews said. “One of the good things that came out of COVID is that so many people were encouraged to go play outside. It brought a new awareness to the parks, and we have to continue to grow on that and make things better.”
Parents’ reaction and response
Jaime Thomas’ son has autism and a sensory disorder making it difficult to access playgrounds. He also has a mobility impairment meaning he is dependent on braces because it hurts to walk. Thomas and her son used to live in the DFW area where several parks are all-inclusive. When they moved to Abilene, they quickly realized no all-inclusive parks existed in the area and began to push the City Council to build one to support kids with disabilities like her son.
“We joked this is probably one of the fastest projects that they got completed in the city,” Thomas said. “And probably the most well-loved and cherished at the moment by families who have a child with a disability. It’s a great time to catch those little gaps in the community and build villages within each other – just to bring inclusion and awareness and acceptance to start breaking down some of the barriers that those with disabilities face.”
Her son is very active and an advocate for kids like him as a member of the Challengers baseball team, therapy swimming, an ambassador for the Joseph Thomas Foundation, a member of Cheerabilities and other activities as well. Cheerabilities is a competitive team that travels around the state competing against other special needs kids in different categories. Thomas said the park is her son’s “happy place.”
“Every picture that’s been shown of the playground during interviews has him playing on it,” Thomas said. “A lot of kids with autism have sensory needs, and swinging is one of those sensory inputs that just kind of relaxes them. Once he gets up on that platform swing, he will just lay there and swing as long as I allow him to. There’s just so much in there for kids who have different mobility needs.”
Within the Joseph Thomas Foundation, where Kirk works, are three programs – a closet program that provides free equipment and other donated amenities to families, an ambassadors program of 12 disabled children who raise money for the organization, and a financial assistance program that helps cover medical bills for parents of disabled children. Prior to 2020, the organization helped 10-15 families a year; now it serves more than 1,000 in nine countries including 150 counties in Texas, Thomas said.
She’s a proud advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves and believes the park creates an opportunity on so many levels, not just physically for disabled children, but socially and emotionally for able-bodied children as well.
Gibson, Coronado and Andrews all said they appreciate the work poured into the park by their department. Abilene’s Parks and Recreation has a mission to enhance the quality of life for citizens of all ages through extensive and diverse recreational and leisure opportunities, and the addition of an all-inclusive park is a major step toward achieving that goal.
“It’s exciting when you can have something like this that anybody can use,” Andrews said. “When we did the ribbon cutting, we had kids who were able to run or roll out and be able to play together and laugh and joke, and everybody was on equal footing. What motivates us to do what we do from day to day is seeing the excitement and joy in other people’s experiences and the things they’re going to remember because of it.”
By Connor Mullins
Photos by Shayli Anne Photography