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New playground holds promise of inclusion

Posted by boston.com  January 2, 2014 12:08 PM

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Two months after its opening next to Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Charlestown, Boston’s newest handicapped-accessible playground is enticing patients and residents alike with its carousel, four slides – and the promise of inclusion.


The park, named after outgoing Mayor Thomas M. Menino, boasts a universal design that incorporates activities meant to appeal to both disabled and non-disabled children.
 
Denise McPherson, whose 8-year-old daughter, Emma, spent two months at Spaulding following a sudden stroke, said the playground’s healing properties were “indescribable.” She said it helped Emma to cope with her transformation from a fully mobile child to one who could barely walk or talk.

“I can’t even describe what the playground has meant to us,” she said. “Our experience has been amazing.”

McPherson said Emma and her three siblings have spent countless hours on the playground, without any complaints of boredom. The park offered them joy and laughter during a particularly trying time.

“She’s able to feel normal again – to interact with her peers and not show any differences,” McPherson said. “She can swing right next to someone else who is not handicapped and not have to worry about her limitations.”

Emma, an avid swimmer, was hospitalized in September. When the playground opened on Nov. 4, Spaulding’s child life specialist, Kim Murnane, integrated time there into her physical therapy routines.
 
“It’s so healing for these patients and families because it’s teaching them that, yes, they may be faced with a new injury or illness, but they’re still able to participate in these regular life activities,” she said.

Murnane said the inclusive design has made the playground a symbol of hope and optimism. “It incorporates everybody of any ability, which is very, very amazing,” she said.

Seth Racine, a Charlestown resident, said part of the draw of the playground is that it brings all types of people together.
 
“It’s the kind of a place you can bring a 9-month old, you can bring a 3-year old, you can bring a 12-year old – and you can sit back and relax and have a great time with the family,” he said.

Racine, a father of two young children, said the playground is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. “I think it’s a perfect location and well designed,” he said.

Built on a 286,800-square-foot lot overlooking downtown Boston, the $4 million playground took five months to complete. Funding was provided by a variety of sources, including the city of Boston and Liberty Mutual Insurance. Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Goldberg Foundation, Herb Chambers, the Highland Street Foundation, Kavanagh Advisors and Subaru of New England also made contributions.
 
Menino, who served as Boston’s mayor for two decades, is a former patient of Spaulding and was the catalyst for the playground. Spaulding opened its current residence in April of this year. Prior to construction, the Boston Redevelopment Authority-owned space had been vacant for 30 years.
 
“[The lot] was considered for a few developments, including an aquarium and a high-rise condominium complex, but neither actually moved forward,” said Cheri Ruane, the landscape architect who designed and oversaw construction of the park. Ruane led a team of architects and engineers from Spurr, the Boston-based design division of Weston & Sampson.

“We didn’t want handicapped children to feel as if they were relegated to some distant corner of a playground where the special-needs equipment is,” she said.
 
The park includes over 60 pieces of inclusive play equipment, a 15,000-square-foot rubber play area, and American with Disabilities Act-accessible paths and gathering spaces. There is a climbing area, a seesaw, multiple slides and a swing set.
 
Ruane said the park’s carousel, which can accommodate disabled and non-disabled riders in tandem, has been especially popular.

“We found children in mobility-assisted devices lack opportunity to experience spinning and rocking,” she said. “We wanted to give them that experience.”
 
According to Ruane, there has been increased demand for handicapped-accessible playgrounds in recent years. Thomas M. Menino Park joins over 20 accessible playgrounds in Massachusetts alone.
 
Other handicapped-accessible parks in Boston include the Dorothy Curran Playground and Harambee Park Boundless Playground in Dorchester and Mission Hill Playground in Roxbury. While not the first of its kind, Ruane views the playground as a model for other public spaces that push the boundaries on what it means to be inclusive.
 
“It takes a little more thinking and it hasn’t necessarily been intuitive, but I definitely see (Menino Park) as a precedent-setter for other public open spaces,” she said.
 
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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