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For many families with disabilities, few Seattle playgrounds feel meant for them

caption: Gavin Glaves navigates a play structure at Seward Park playground with a cane, July 17, 2023.
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Gavin Glaves navigates a play structure at Seward Park playground with a cane, July 17, 2023.
KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld


hen KJ Glaves was pregnant, she walked through Seward Park near her south Seattle home and imagined the day when her child would play on its sprawling playground, nestled between the forest and Lake Washington.

Then Gavin was born with albinism, which causes impaired vision. Glaves quickly realized that, like most Seattle playgrounds, Seward Park is not set up for people with blindness. Gavin, now 5, often uses a cane nicknamed “Javelina” to navigate.

“It’s hard for Javelina to go on the wood chips,” Gavin said, which cover most of the ground at the Seward Park playground. The city has installed rubberized flooring or synthetic grass at some playgrounds around town, but wood chips remain the standard.

Once Gavin reaches the largest play structure, where the highlight is the slides — “Because they go fast!” — the dark brown stairs are hard for Gavin to see where each one begins and ends.

“Blind usually doesn't mean no vision — it usually means some degree of vision,” Glaves said, adding that having good contrast makes a big difference in the ability of blind kids to play and be active.

When they visit Seward Park playground these days, Glaves has to follow closely behind, rather than relax on a bench like many other caregivers.

Glaves met with officials from Seattle Parks and Recreation to see if high-visibility stripes could be added to the play structure stairs and edges, even offering to paint them herself. But Glaves said she was told stripes would void the play structure’s warranty.

Glaves called the manufacturer, she said, who told her that wasn’t true — high-contrast stripes were fine. When she told the parks department, officials never followed up. She now takes Gavin mostly to play areas in Renton parks, which have bright colors and high contrast, she said.

Parents of kids with disabilities can all rattle off lists of features that most Seattle playgrounds lack that would make visiting them safer and more fun for their families:

  • Saucer and high-backed swings
  • Hand rails
  • Lower monkey bars
  • Soap dispensers closer to the ground
  • Play structures without sheer drops
  • Slides of different speeds

"Pretty much all the things that allow her to be independent and just play like a kid, without Mommy making sure she’s safe," said Adjua Dupree, whose 6-year-old, Gwen Wilkerson, has Down syndrome.

Some say their efforts to get Seattle Parks and Rec to increase accessibility at playgrounds beyond federal standards have gained no traction.

Mike Schwindeller, a project manager at Seattle Parks and Recreation, said that with more than 150 city-operated playgrounds in Seattle, it’s difficult and expensive to upgrade them all.

Asked about Glaves’ request for high-contrast stripes on stairs and edges at Seward Park, he acknowledged that the request had been reasonable.

“I appreciate you bringing that to our attention,” Schwindeller said. “We think we have a solution that we would like to implement to see how it works in the coming weeks. We are committed to trying to find something that works.”

Accessible play areas also allow caregivers with disabilities to use playgrounds. Samantha Fogg was using a wheelchair one day when her toddler begged to play on a Seattle playground with wood chips.

"I had been resisting letting him go, because that meant that my wheelchair could not go onto the playground," Fogg said. "But he went, and he played, and he fell. And he was lying on the ground bleeding, and I could not get to him."

A stranger had to carry her toddler to her.

"Because we do not have accessible playgrounds, it creates dangerous situations," Fogg said. "We're doing this all over Seattle. And we don't need to."

Schwindeller said the city is making progress on replacing wood chips on playgrounds with synthetic grass or rubber flooring, “but those are both quite a bit more expensive than engineered wood fiber. We're trying to make a gradual transition and make sure that we're equitably distributing those more accessible facilities throughout the entire city.”

The parks department asks for community input when it renovates playgrounds. Many parents want fences around play areas, which can prevent kids with less impulse control from running off or into the street.

For Monica Heinberg, whose 7-year-old Lona has Down syndrome and can wander off, “fences are the single most important feature — or some other barrier, especially between the park and a busy street,” she said.

“Just the other weekend, we were at our neighborhood park and our basketball rolled into the street, and she ran after it,” sending Heinberg sprinting, she said. “I have no piece of mind when there isn’t a fence or enclosed area. I’m constantly preoccupied with, ‘Where’s Lona?’”

When the city rebuilt Lakeridge Playfield, parents petitioned for a fence to keep kids from running into the street.

The parks department said no.

“There's quite a number of reasons why," Schwindeller said. "I think one of the most important is that it really does isolate the playground from other park elements; it reduces visibility and connectivity between the spaces.”

Schwindeller pointed to the new inclusive Pathways Park in Sand Point, which opened this month, as a showpiece for the city’s efforts toward inclusivity.

Chris Matsumoto, who helped work on Pathways Park, is the principal at the inclusion-focused Experimental Education Unit school at the University of Washington, where young children with and without disabilities learn and play side by side. Matsumoto said parks like Pathways are meant to show what’s possible at every playground, not serve as the city’s only inclusive play spaces.

“It's also so much about privilege. We’re not addressing the fact that some families having to actually make a plan to travel farther away from their community, so that kids can play on a playground, is an equity issue,” Matsumoto said.

Making parks inclusive normalizes having a disability, which in turn benefits people of every ability status, Matsumoto said.

“Making sure not just parks, but that the community is accessible, actually allows people to learn about each other; it allows people to really appreciate the diversity of our community," he said. "And when things aren't accessible, it segregates."

Families told KUOW that even small changes can go a long way — like the high-visibility stripes the Parks department said they'd add to the Seward Park play structure within weeks.

KUOW spoke with them last summer — eleven months ago.

The stairs still have no stripes.

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