It always surprises me how often this comes up. A mom asks what she can do because the school playground is not accessible to her disabled child. What are the legal requirements for ADA playgrounds? What can parents do if their school playground is not ADA compliant?

When your school playground is not accessible for ADA requirements.

Let’s dig into all that and more.

First, deep breaths. I often have to remind myself of Hanlon’s Razor.

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Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Hanlon’s Razor principle

Right? First, let’s remind ourselves that they likely did not do this to target our children specifically, even if we feel targeted. More often than not, it’s laziness, stupidity and “we just never got around to it.”

That doesn’t make it right. I get that. Over the past almost 20 years, I can’t even count how many times we’ve been unable to access something in the community. It’s very frustrating and maddening. But it’s not usually done with malice. And that can change your thinking and make you more collaborative and successful in attaining your goal.

Accessible School Playgrounds

Ok, great; that being said, they need to fix it. It is an ADA issue for them.

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on the internet. But there are a few highlights from the ADA that you can read. If you wish to seek legal assistance, you want an attorney specializing in ADA.

Unless you are specifically going to file an IEP due process complaint, you need an ADA lawyer, not an IDEA lawyer.

For detailed and up-to-date information on ADA requirements for playgrounds, I recommend checking the official ADA website (www.ada.gov) or consulting the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at 28 CFR Part 36, Subpart D.

Additionally, local building codes and accessibility guidelines may provide specific playground requirements in your area. Always refer to the latest regulations and consult with local authorities for accurate and current information.

A girl with a broken leg sits on the ground next to a ADA-compliant playground.
It’s really unfair for a child to be unable to access a playground.

ADA Legal Requirements for Playgrounds

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sets standards for accessibility in various public spaces, including playgrounds. The ADA Standards for Accessible Design provide guidelines to ensure playgrounds are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

These guidelines cover various aspects of playground design and construction to make them inclusive for all children, regardless of their abilities.

Here are some key ADA requirements for playgrounds:

  1. Access Routes:
    • Play areas must have accessible routes connecting various play components.
    • Accessible routes should be firm, stable, and slip-resistant.
  2. Ground Surfaces:
    • Ground surfaces should be smooth and firm to facilitate wheelchair movement.
    • Loose fill surfaces (such as wood chips or sand) must be of a specified depth to accommodate wheelchairs.
  3. Ramps and Transfer Systems:
    • Elevated play components should have ramps or transfer systems to allow access for individuals with mobility disabilities.
    • Ramps should meet specific slope requirements.
  4. Swings:
    • At least one of each type of swing should be accessible.
    • Accessible swings should have proper clear floor space and be at a reachable height.
  5. Play Components:
    • There should be a variety of accessible play components, including ground-level activities.
    • Transfer systems or ramps should be provided for elevated play structures.
  6. Seating Areas:
    • Accessible seating areas with clear floor space for wheelchair users should be provided.
  7. Signage:
    • Accessible routes and play components should be appropriately identified with signage.
  8. Provisions for Individuals with Sensory Disabilities:
    • Consideration should be given to individuals with sensory disabilities, and play components should be designed to provide a variety of sensory experiences.
  9. Play Area Size and Maneuvering Space:
    • Adequate space should be provided for maneuvering and turning for individuals using wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
  10. Safety Features:
    • Playgrounds should incorporate safety features, including barrier-free travel paths, to ensure all users’ safety.

It’s important to note that the ADA standards are periodically updated, so checking the latest guidelines and regulations is recommended to ensure compliance.

Additionally, some states and local jurisdictions may have additional or more stringent requirements, so it’s advisable to consult with local authorities and accessibility experts during the design and construction of playgrounds.

An accessible playground featuring a red slide and a green slide.

ADA Guidelines for Playgrounds

I found this checklist from a disability advocacy group in New England. I have not checked it alongside the most recent re-auth of ADA.

The playground needs to be accessible to your child. Assuming they receive state and federal funding if a child cannot access the playground, he is “being treated differently than his non-disabled peers” (Office of Civil Rights complaint), and they have some ADA issues.

You can file an ADA complaint, as most disability legislation is complaint-based.

OCR has already published dozens of resolutions about this issue. Below is an example of an agreement made after a complaint was filed with OCR.

Accessible Playgrounds

Accessible playgrounds are all the rage right now. Many communities are putting them in as they understand the value of play and socialization. And how it excludes and segregates our kids when they cannot participate. But those projects are a huge undertaking. Play is valuable.

Recreation and being able to recreate and socialize are components of IEPs. If your son has socialization goals or gross motor/PT goals on his IEP, I would ask the team how he can work on those during recess if he cannot access the playground.

A young boy is enjoying himself on an ada-accessible playground.

Addressing the Accessible Playground Issue with your IEP Team

It would be lovely if the school would just (duh!) do the right thing and make the playground accessible. Again, Hanlon’s Razor—probably the reason they haven’t done it is that they have never been asked to.

Or they don’t have enough money. That is where I would start.

Ask the teacher and principal about accessing the playground and see what kind of response you get. I’m also assuming that you want the playground accessible so he can socialize and interact with his peers.

You are not asking for one of those million-dollar special playgrounds, so you’re being reasonable.

I certainly would advocate for this and push for it. At the same time, be cautious and take a collaborative approach. Recently, I heard of a situation where a child needed a very expensive service/accommodation, and he got it.

However, the school made it very well known (to everyone) that “there are no field trips this year because we needed to use the money for Student’s service instead.” Yeah, that.

It was a crappy thing to do, and you certainly wouldn’t want to open up your child for that kind of chastising. “Sorry kids, we had to close the entire playground because Student wanted to use it and we can’t afford the upgrades.”

Sure, we can scream, “That’s illegal!” about that particular case all day. The horse is out of the barn.

So I would try to keep conversations upbeat and collaborative.

A wooden playground with an ADA-compliant sign for a disabled person.
Accessible playgrounds are becoming more popular.

Funding an Accessible Playground

I would try to get some information on what kind of modifications would have to be made and how much it would cost.

While it shouldn’t be your responsibility, you may want to contact local Lions, Rotary, and groups like that and ask them to chip in $1000 or $2000 to collectively cover the cost.

If your child needs a sidewalk or ramp, call local concrete contractors and see if they will do it at cost or as a donation. Ask your school personnel if they need you to write a letter for them to pursue some grants.

In other words, offer to help in the best way possible. Bring in other parents in your situation at your school, if there are any, and work together. Research how communities get their special needs playgrounds funded online and see if you can replicate it.

And if that doesn’t work, you have to decide how far you want to take it. As I linked to one such OCR complaint above, you can see that the law is on your side. But that’s the long and stressful way to get there.

I wouldn’t start out this way, but you can always contact attorneys, the media, or your local legislator and see if that changes their mind.

But like my Nan always said, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Try being a part of the solution first.

ADA Playgrounds in the Community

Municipal playgrounds are still bound to ADA, even if they are not a school. The process is the same. Start with your town council or mayor’s office, whichever municipal entity is responsible.

A boy is playing on an accessible playground.
My little guy at the accessible playground at Cedar Beach, Allentown, PA. (not a school playground)

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