By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The parents who attended the opening of an access-for-all playground in July of 2019 had high hopes that their children with disabilities would finally have a place to play. Among them was Montclair resident Iris Mehler, whose daughter Kereni has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Those hopes were soon dashed when they found the playground only had one piece of equipment that could accommodate a child in a wheelchair. 

The $1.4 million all-access Watsessing County Park playground in Bloomfield, designed by Remington & Vernick Engineers and built by Picerno Giordano Construction, had been geared more toward children with autism who have full movement. It included a musical section with a large xylophone and a drum, a rainbow maker and a water-misting section. 

Mehler waited as the ribbon was cut so she could finally wheel Kereni, then 11, into the play area. 

There were ramps for wheelchairs, but nothing to do at the end of the ramps. All-access swings and seesaws had bucket seats into which parents or caregivers could move their children — but lifting a child out of a wheelchair can be daunting. And some children can’t leave their wheelchairs at all, because they’re dependent on medical equipment attached to them, Mehler said.

“The playground did not represent true integration. It was sad,” she said.

Kereni Mehler, left, with her cousin at Watsessing Park prior to the renovations. MELHER)
Kereni Mehler, left, with her cousin at Watsessing Park prior to the renovations. MELHER)
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But on Tuesday, May 18, parents were once again at the park, this time to celebrate improvements meant to make it accessible to all — changes inspired in part by Kereni’s own story. The park now houses a wheelchair-accessible swing, wheelchair-accessible carousel and a raised sandbox.

The movement to educate county officials on what’s involved in creating a truly all-access playground has been a long one, Mehler, who has since moved to Michigan and could not attend Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting, said.

Most of the “all-access” playgrounds cropping up across the United States are built with good intentions, Montclair disabilities advocate Alma Schneider, founder of the Friday Group, said. The social support group serves more than 300 Montclair-area parents of children with disabilities. But Schneider said most of the playgrounds are specifically geared toward the needs of children on the autism spectrum. 

In 2019, county officials said the equipment was compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Designers of inclusive playgrounds point to five fundamentals, which Watsessing Park met. They say the playgrounds should provide a multisensory play experience, should encourage all children to play through graduated challenges, should have accessibility features like wide movement routes and smooth transitions on and off equipment, should offer quiet spaces and directional pathways to keep kids from getting overwhelmed, and should have welcoming areas for both quiet and social play.

In January 2020, Mehler’s friend and fellow Montclair resident Lesley Scammell started a Change.org petition, “Help us make playgrounds truly accessible for Kereni and other wheelchair users,” directing it to county Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. The petition, with nearly 3,425 signatures, was presented by a group of parents at a meeting with county engineer Sanjeev Varghese, county executive chief of staff Phil Alagia, county parks director Dan Salvante and deputy parks director Kate Hardwyk in early February 2020.

The county executive committed to all of the additions. The funding was provided through the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund and with a grant from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, county spokesman Anthony Puglisi said at the time.

Picerno Giordano Construction, from Kenilworth, was awarded the contract for $277,922 to install the additional playground apparatus, Puglisi said.

Last year, a Hoyer lift to transfer a person from a wheelchair to a toilet was installed. An adult changing table was installed in the nearby restroom as well.

Then the pandemic set in, but the county apparently forged on with the playground expansion, Scammell said.

“I am gobsmacked. It just goes to show what can happen when people come together to make something happen. It’s very gratifying,” Scammell, who was given the honor of cutting the ribbon on Tuesday, said.

Jessica Hauber, engineer from Remington & Vernick Engineers, said it was her first time working on an all-access playground.

“It was definitely fulfilling to see somewhere where everyone could come and play,” she said.

Mehler said she hopes the fight will help transform the design of all-access playgrounds throughout New Jersey and the United States in the future. She is now working with her town in Michigan, making sure plans for a new playground are all-inclusive.

She hopes Kereni and other children who use wheelchairs will be able to play alongside their friends out in the sunshine and fresh air, she said.

Schneider said Mehler’s advocacy work left a legacy in Essex County, and that other park directors are now including wheelchair-accessible equipment.

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. greets parent advocate Leslie Scammell at Watsessing County Park, where a playground has been upgraded to meet the needs of children in wheelchairs. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. greets parent advocate Leslie Scammell at Watsessing County Park, where a playground has been upgraded to meet the needs of children in wheelchairs. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
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“This is valuable for all children — with disabilities and without disabilities — to be able to play and interact with each other. It’s desensitizing and de-stigmatizing,” Schneider said.

Ilah Saltzman, Kereni’s former caregiver, came to park on Tuesday in support of Kereni and all children with disabilities. She used to take Kereni to the park, but said it was difficult for her to watch the other children play, and not interact.

“It felt very physically isolated from everyone else when she would be here,” Saltzman said. “It’s about time for this form of inclusion, and I’m just happy that the necessary progress has been made.”

Mehler hopes for a not-so-distant future when all design is universal.

“Look at the weakest link and think who is going to have the hardest time and design it for those people, and it will benefit far more than you think. Think about automatic doors and how they help not just people in wheelchairs, but the mailman with an armload of packages or the mom with the baby carriage.”

— Kate Albright contributed to this article.