Dozens of families sat, or stood, before Fort Mill Town Council recently asking not for their own park, but rather one for everybody.
A standing room only crowd gathered Sept. 12 to make the case for an inclusive playground in Fort Mill. They say a new site will work, or simple changes can be made to an existing park or parks. They also say they’ll help make it happen.
“We’re not expecting the town to pay for the whole thing,” said Megan Clark, mother of three including a 6-year-old boy with special needs. “We expect for their to be some private and public partnership, which is usually how these parks work.”
Special needs vary widely. Yet a handful of considerations when building or renovating a park meet those needs for many. Multiple handicap-accessible swings and a smooth rubber surface are a start. Wide walkways, ramp access and easily scalable attractions are others.
For Clark, a fenced play area would make a world of difference.
“He can disappear at the drop of a hat,” she said of her son. “He’s nonverbal, so the times when we have lost him before — because that happens — it’s very scary. He can’t walk up to someone and say, hey, my name is...”
For Rachel Goodwin, who moved to Fort Mill a year ago, the biggest need for her 7-year-old daughter is a playground with access ramps.
“For us, these are the things she loves, going to the playground,” Goodwin said. “But there’s nothing she can do (without modifications).”
Goodwin said she believes the people who fund and build playgrounds aren’t trying to exclude families like hers, nor do they lack empathy.
“I feel like they just don’t know what the struggles are,” she said.
Tim Veeck moved to Fort Mill six years ago with his family, which includes a special needs son. Veeck, as the executive director of the York County Habitat for Humanity branch, does his part in making homes accessible for others. Fort Mill has strong schools and public services, he said, which draw families like his.
“We quickly realized that one thing that was missing was an accessible playground nearby,” Veeck said.
Lori Christison, a speech language pathologist, is spearheading the group looking for an inclusive playground. She isn’t looking for something only special needs children can use.
“I believe all families should have these same opportunities,” Christison said.
Playgrounds, she said, can be anything from modest to multilevel or multi-generational. People think of children with special needs, but less often of military veteran parents or grandparents who may be confined to a wheelchair, older adults with mobility issues and others.
“It’s the largest minority group of any kind in the country,” Christison said of special needs families, “and any one of us could join at any time.”
A Facebook page dedicated to Fort Mill-area special needs families has more than 250 members. Playground proponents say it isn’t a small percentage of people who would benefit from better access.
“There’s a pretty big population of kids with special needs in Fort Mill,” Clark said. “So many people come here for the schools, so they bring kids. That includes kids with special needs.”
Inclusive playgrounds also mean a place where traditionally developing siblings can play alongside their brothers or sisters with special needs. Schools often have a handicap accessible swing now, but often only one per playground and families aren’t able to access them during non-school hours, anyway. Christison said newer playgrounds incorporate features to accommodate people with disabilities.
“Inclusive playgrounds are a natural progression,” she said.
The group has no set time frame for getting or re-purposing a park moving forward. They only want to start the conversation with the town. Funding could take some time for the town. Council passed the first of two needed readings on its upcoming budget at the same meeting the families attended.
Dennis Pieper, town manager, said money is allocated in the upcoming budget for recreation, but not specifically for an inclusive park.
“We did put $200,000 in there for planning,” he said.
The town has some recreation space likely to be developed in the next several years. Recreation is one area where funding comes in through impact fees passed by Council last year on new construction.