Iris Mehler, whose 11-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy, was excited when Essex County announced it would be creating an all-access playground at Watsessing Park, down the street from her home. She dreamed of a space where her children and their friends could play side-by-side, including those in wheelchairs. 

However, when the all-access park, designed by Remington & Vernick Engineers, opened on July 26, Mehler said she was disappointed to see only one piece of equipment that accommodates a wheelchair. 

All equipment, the county contends, is in compliance with ADA and current playground codes however.

All-access playgrounds offer five main components according to Miracle Recreation, a company that specializes in inclusive playgrounds — they provide multi-sensory play experiences through touch, sound and visuals; provide a graduated range of challenge; allow greater accessibility with wider access and smooth, even transitions on and off equipment; support children on the autism spectrum with directional pathways and quiet spaces; and create welcoming play areas for both quiet and social play.

The all-access park at Watsessing Park, along Bloomfield Avenue in Bloomfield, contains all that. It has ramps for wheelchair accessibility, swings and seesaws designed with bucket seats for children in wheelchairs. There is also a musical section with a large xylophone and a drum, a rainbow maker and a water-misting section.

Watsessing Park's new ADA compliant all access playground opened on Friday, July 26th, the first of its kind in the Essex County Parks System to be designed for children of all physical abilities. ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Watsessing Park's new ADA compliant all access playground opened on Friday, July 26th, the first of its kind in the Essex County Parks System to be designed for children of all physical abilities. ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

"When we modernize our playgrounds, we have always included some elements that can be used by children with limited physical abilities,” said county executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., at the playground’s July 26 ribbon-cutting. “But all children should have a place to play, and having an all-access playground will bridge the gap between mainstream children and those with handicaps, create a better understanding and foster social relationships.” 

Although the park is geared toward inclusive play, a group of parents want the park to have more equipment for children who are wheelchair bound.

Mehler contends there is only piece of playground equipment — a swing of sorts — that can accommodate a wheelchair.

There are wheelchair ramps, Mehler conceded, but nothing for the children to do once they get up the ramps. The ramps are also minimum ADA standard width, which means that they are just wide enough for her daughter’s wheelchair, with no additional room for someone to walk beside the wheelchair.

The all-access swings require the parent or caregiver to lift the child out his or her wheelchair, which can be daunting to some caregivers. And some children can’t leave their wheelchairs because they are dependant on medical equipment attached to the chair, said Mehler.

“There is this thought that they can magically leave their chairs, but that is not the case,” said Mehler. 

“[The playground] does not represent true integration. It’s sad,” she said.

Wheelchair-bound children suffer from social isolation due to lack of outdoor play and stimulation, said Mehler, who also has a master’s degree as a rehabilitation counselor and has fought for all-access in the workplace.

Mehler has suggestions for equipment that could have been included — a teeter-totter, or a merry-go-round built to accommodate wheelchairs — pointing to the Magical Bridge Playground in California where her daughter could play for hours. 

She attempted to give her input to the county on the plans for the playground, contacting Freeholder Brendan Gill, whom she said was receptive and put her in touch with the engineer. But at that point, the plans had been laid and the equipment bought.

Although good intentions were there, said Montclair disabilities advocate Alma Schneider, most all-access playgrounds cropping up throughout the U.S. are geared toward the needs of autistic children who have full movement. Instead she suggests that the engineers of these playgrounds look toward making them “universally-accessible.”

“I realize there was no malice intended in any way,” said Schneider, who runs a social support group for more than 300 Montclair-area parents of children with disabilities. “But, it’s very common when doing the right thing, not to ask for input from the disability community that will be using it. What was supposed to be a happy day for the [Mehler] family, wasn’t.” 

She likened it to Autism Awareness Month in the schools, which she said is a bone of contention with her members every year. 

“Very rarely, if at all, are these parents asked for any input on what the school has planned,” Schneider said.

Mehler attended the ribbon-cutting in protest, bringing stickers to place on equipment that is not wheelchair accessible. She claims 30 pieces of equipment could have been tagged.

Mehler’s friend, Meaghan Lorenz of Montclair, whose child also has a disability but is not wheelchair-bound, said she was looking forward to their children playing together on the playground.

“It’s ironically named an ‘all-access playground,’ but contains nothing that disabled children in wheelchairs can use. In fact there isn't a single playground in Essex County that adequately serves this completely excluded population,” said Lorenz. “These children, who spend their days hidden indoors and who desperately need access to outdoor play, have been repeatedly failed by our public spaces. The addition of two or three pieces of equipment to just one of these massive and expensive new playgrounds would make an enormous difference in the lives of the children living with severe disabilities in our community.”

The county invested $4 million into the park renovations, which includes the Watsessing Park Community Center building. Remington & Vernick Engineers from Secaucus was awarded a $65,000 contract to design the all-access playground. Picerno Giordano Construction from Kenilworth was awarded a public-bid contract for $1,436,000 to build the playground. Funding was provided from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund and with a grant from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Work started in January and was completed in seven months.

The group said it’s not too late for the county to incorporate a few more pieces of equipment to accommodate the children in wheelchairs. 

“We hope they try and get some structures in there for these children who are dependant on their wheelchairs,” Schneider said.

Another all-access playground is expected to open this fall. This summer the YMCA of Montclair broke ground on an accessible public playground behind the Geyer Family Branch at 159 Glenridge Ave.

Through a design-and-development collaboration with Montclair State University, the Y is planning a fully accessible rainbow-themed playground with a play tower with an ADA staircase, a slide, a greenhouse and florist play space, sand and water play, a tiered mountain riding road and an urban garden. The Y is raising $150,000 in funding for the playground.