DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. — 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, the 46-year-old mother made good on her promise when Owen cut the ribbon welcoming the public to “Owen’s Playground.” The new $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.

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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 constructed across the Chicago area in recent years. 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, 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, from spinning contraptions to musical stations, were designed to be accessible for both typical children and those with mobility impairment or cognitive challenges, 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 ADA that for first time required new or remodeled playgrounds to include, among other guidelines, low-sitting structures for someone using a wheelchair, according to Sherril York, executive director of the National Center on Accessibility.

In roughly the same amount of time, York said she has noticed a growing number of playground equipment manufacturers offer products that take into account children and caregivers with special needs, she said.

Chicago playgrounds all meet the latest ADA standards, with offerings such as bucket seating on swings for children who may 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 construct state-of-the-art playgrounds grew across the country, as it has in the Chicago area, York said.

In Elmhurst, 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. The municipality each year designates $350,000 to remodel one of its 18 playgrounds. That sum covers the design and construction of a playground that meets ADA standards, such as 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: extra 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, as well as several other community groups, the park district raised another $250,000 for the creation of 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 noted 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.”

York, of the National Center on Accessibility, which is considered by advocates as the leading authority on access issues unique to park and recreation programs and facilities, said she has been encouraged to see playground organizers interested in addressing more than the needs of children with physical disabilities. The new parks are also geared toward caregivers with disabilities and children with autism spectrum disorder, vision loss and hearing impairments.

“They’re thinking about individuals with all different types of needs on the playground and trying to make sure that it’s not just this special playground that sits there all by itself with individuals with disabilities,” York said.

At Hillcrest, Principal Michelle Rzepka said her student body of 380 enjoys the playground several times a day, and visitors come to Owen’s Playground after school from all parts of the Chicago area.

“We don’t have the wood chips or the barriers that we once did. Instead of seeing kids on the sidelines, we’re seeing kids integrating together and playing together,” Rzepka said. “It is well-loved.”

It’s a sight that Chaidez, who spearheaded the Downers Grove project while working full-time as a digital analyst for an advertising agency, at times worried she would never see.

Owen, now a 10-year-old fifth-grader, was born with a rare condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita that affected his joints and left him able to walk short distances only with assistance. He mostly uses a wheelchair.

He encouraged his mother’s work on Owen’s Playground by repeating a lesson she’s taught him many times.

“As much as I would start to get discouraged, he would always say, ‘You can do it, Mom. You can do anything,'” said Chaidez, who is now fielding calls from all over the country and Canada about how to build accessible playgrounds in their own communities.

“He thinks I can do no wrong,” she said.

© 2016 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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