LINCOLN, Neb. — The first-grader with red hair and an infectious smile can do nothing more than watch.

While his classmates run and climb on Robinson Elementary School’s brand-new playground, 7-year-old Finn Hall has to stay on the sidelines. He can’t get on the equipment because Finn, who has cerebral palsy, is in a wheelchair. There are no ramps — only stairs — and on the ground level, there’s little Finn can do but navigate the bright green poles supporting the play structure.

“It is so frustrating,” Finn said on a recent day after school.

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But Finn wasn’t content to stay on the sidelines. Neither was Cathy Martinez, Finn’s grandmother.

Martinez, the president of the Autism Family Network and a vocal advocate for families with children who have disabilities, arranged a meeting with the district about how to make the playground more inclusive.

“It’s 2023. Why isn’t it the standard?” Martinez asked. “We need to make sure ‘all means all’ is actually pertaining to all.”

Now, Lincoln Public Schools has pledged to add inclusive elements to the playground at the city’s newest elementary school near 102nd and Holdrege streets, including a ramp to grant access to the main playground structure and a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round.

And it has also pledged to continue the conversation around playground accessibility by forming a committee to examine how LPS can make playgrounds and other physical spaces more inclusive.

“We were all very pleased with the outcome,” said Martinez. “I think our request was very well-received — better than I expected.”

Martinez, Finn and two other moms met with LPS Operations Director Scott Wieskamp at the playground to discuss the changes after Martinez sent an email to district and city officials.

Other changes planned include installing ground-level activity panels and tightening up the slats of a bridge on the main structure so wheelchairs won’t get stuck. Martinez said the activity panels and merry-go-round — which will be flush to the ground, so children in wheelchairs can get on it — could be installed as soon as this summer, while the ramp may take longer.

Wieskamp said the timeline is partly dependent on logistics. The district just installed the playground equipment at Robinson in the past few weeks after lengthy supply chain delays. LPS has promised to cover the cost of the new inclusive components, Wieskamp said.

The changes at Robinson are part of a larger conversation happening in Lincoln to make playgrounds more inclusive beyond the bare-bones accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Martinez has helped lead the push for a new inclusive playground in the city after she received a call from a mother looking for more adaptive play equipment for her son, who has autism.

That phone call led to the city setting aside money for the inclusive playground at Mahoney Park and a $400,000 federal grant that will provide half of the funding and allow construction to begin in the spring of 2024.

The city also formed an advisory committee to look into updating Antelope Park and adding adaptive and inclusive components at all new parks and existing ones as they’re renovated.

As far as the district goes, Kloefkorn Elementary appears to be the only precedent. In 2015, with the help of its PTO, the school installed first-of-its-kind inclusive equipment, like a wheelchair-accessible teeter-totter.

Erin Branch, the co-president of the Roper Elementary PTO, said parents have also raised money to install inclusive equipment at Roper’s playground, but she said the project has been delayed. She hopes the new committee will help Roper and other schools get the inclusive equipment they want.

“Robinson is not the only school that is looking at this inclusive playground,” she said. “This is something that needs to be addressed.”

Federal law dictates playgrounds be accessible, which essentially means that the equipment must be reachable on the ground level. At Robinson, for example, there’s a small ramp built into the rubber surface of the playground that allows Finn to get up next to the equipment, but not onto it.

“ADA compliant is that ramp,” Martinez said.

Wieskamp said the district wants to do everything it can to accommodate students to make sure they’re included but said it comes down in part to funding. The district does have some funds set aside from the 2020 bond issue for general infrastructure projects, which could potentially include upgrades at other playgrounds.

The committee looking at playground inclusivity will likely be convened in the fall, Wieskamp said, and be made up of parents, students and staff. The plan is to also examine other physical spaces beyond play areas that the district can improve upon, Wieskamp said.

“We want to be problem-solvers as a committee,” Wieskamp said. “Not just problem-finders; we want to be problem-solvers.”

For his part, Finn is already a problem-solver. In the meeting with his grandmother and Wieskamp, he pointed out what changes he would like to see. Now, he can confidently repeat the refrain Martinez says he’s kept saying in the days since that meeting.

“I made change.”

© 2023 Lincoln Journal Star
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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