Monday, February 8, 2010

All are welcome here

Today we have a guest blog from Amy Julia Becker, mom to Penny (above) and William. Amy Julia is a writer and a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. At Thin Places she blogs about "theology, disability, children and parenting, education, and the intersection of grief and hope." Thank you Amy Julia!

All are welcome here
By Amy Julia Becker

“Architecture is evangelism.” I heard it said in the context of church buildings. The speaker was making the point that a ramp at the back of the sanctuary might comply with ADA standards, but it isn’t exactly welcoming to individuals in wheelchairs. I’ve been trying to think of an equally pithy way to state this truth for the rest of the world. “Architecture sends a message” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but the point stands. The way our buildings, homes, and public spaces are constructed says everything about which people we want to see in those places.

Last week, my mother and I took my kids to our first Boundless playground, a playground intentionally designed to include children with a variety of strengths and abilities. I noticed the swings first—a few that looked the same as every other playground, and two with full back support and harnesses, big enough to hold an elementary-school aged child. Our daughter Penny, age four, has Down syndrome, and I remember the days when she could only spend 60 seconds in a swing before needing to get down. That low muscle tone made it hard to hold her head up, so the enjoyment of swinging was limited by the design of the swing. At this playground, those bright yellow swings stood out as an invitation for any child to swing with abandon.

And then I noticed that the path up to the slide was quite wide. Wide enough, in fact, for a wheelchair. Along the way up, we discovered “stations”—Braille on one plastic board, a xylophone elsewhere, knobs and different textures lining the walls. Penny and William, our 18-month old son, didn’t seem to notice anything different. They just thought it was fun to slide and swing and seesaw, play peekaboo, run and climb and spin.

A few years ago, it took courage for me to take Penny to a playground. I wondered what questions I might get, particularly, “How old is she?” and then a surprised look when I said “Two,” and they watched her take those tentative early steps, watched her tiny body navigate whatever treacherous structure loomed ahead. I worried about older children knocking her down. I wasn’t even sure she would have fun, since she couldn’t run and jump and climb like other kids her age.

Now, Penny can run and jump and climb. There are still things she can’t do, but she’s old enough now that most playgrounds are pretty fun spots. And if I’m honest about it, even in this inclusive setting, a child in a wheelchair would run into some barriers fairly quickly. She could wheel herself to the xylophone, but she couldn’t get all the way to the highest slide without assistance. She couldn’t get up and ride on the bouncy horse or sit on the giant seesaw by herself. Even a “boundless” playground can’t remove all physical limitations.

So for a moment, the cynic in me kicked in. What’s the point of this place? Penny can have fun on most any playground these days. And it would still be tough for some kids to navigate this one. But the purpose of this space goes beyond physical barriers. It tackles social ones, which is more than half the battle. Because what this playground said to me was, You are welcome here. And so is your daughter, who has glasses and a physical therapist and an individualized education plan. Your daughter, who has by now introduced herself to everyone else on the playground with, “Hi, what’s your name? Want to play?”

Architecture sends a message. In this case, thankfully, the message was: Come on in. Play with us. Stay for a while.



I once attended a seminar in which a similar point was made...and even, taken a step further. The speaker (whose name I now forget, drat) said that good design benefits *everyone* and then he went on to mention the lights above the elevators (which we all use to get going faster, but were orignially installed to help with wheelchair access) and the ramps on the curbs (again, we all use them with luggage, or strollers, or bikes, but were again initiated b/c of wheelchairs...).

Good is good, no matter what. And it benefits us all, when the message is "Welcome."


Lovely post and that photo of your girl is adorable. We have several boundless playgrounds here in Los Angeles, and they were so wonderful when my own daughter with special needs was younger. Some of the playgrounds have organized playdates where they encourage the interaction of typical kids and those with special needs -- a company usually comes in and sponsors the day with snacks, crafts, etc.; each typical child can buddy with another. It worked wonderfully and really expanded the social architecture!

I live in West Hartford, CT, where the very first Boundless Playground was built. A mom here in town raised money and had in built in memory of her son, who died of a degenerative disease. It is called "Jonathan's Dream" after him, and from there his mom went on to start Boundless Playgrounds. It is the best, biggest, most talked about, most popular playground in town--for everyone. I and my daughter have a genetic bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta. My daughter is now 10, but when she was younger, Jonathan's Dream definitely offered a level of safety and access that other playgrounds didn't. Now, we take all three kids just because it's a fun place, and I don't think any of them have any idea it's different for a reason.

Thanks everyone for sharing! I'm glad to hear about the origins of the boundless playgrounds -- what a beautiful story and legacy for Jonathan. I noticed there are two in Canada, although I haven't visited either.

There is/was a proposal to build one in my neighbourhood. It was interesting to see the community response. Some was negative but it was just so pathetic we all had to laugh and it really mobilised those of us who want our neighbourhood architecture to say 'welcome!"


Such playgrounds benefit children without any disability. As a parent with a disability when my son was small he loved playgrounds but wanted to share them with me. Every playground presented significant architectural barriers. This bothered him and me. Glad to know more accessible exist today.