On a summer afternoon, a neighborhood boy rides his skateboard up the wheelchair ramp of Nevin Park’s playground.
From the highest peak of the wooden loft, he watches the last in a stream of wheelchairs and walkers disappear into the waiting white van below.
A few minutes before, plenty of playmates had surrounded him: on the swings, clanging at the chimes and steering behind the wooden racecars that wrap around the playground’s two-lane track.
Even in sweltering heat like today, when the temperature pushes toward 100 degrees, the park stays busy.
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“You should see this place on a Saturday afternoon,” said the boy, still watching. “It’s packed.”
A decade ago, parks like this – inclusive ones designed to be shared by able-bodied kids and those with disabilities – didn’t exist around here.
Nevin Park, the first of its kind built through Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, is more than just swings and jungle gyms to those who use it. The playground represents the shifting attitude of society.
Built four years ago, it proudly showcases the theory that children of all abilities not only can play together, they should.
“It’s really changed: the way we view disabilities. What they are and aren’t,” said Karla Gray, senior therapeutic recreation manager for Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation. Gray saw the Nevin Park project grow from an idea in 2007 to a reality a year and a half later. “I don’t think something like this would have been as successful in the ’70s or ’80s. I just don’t think it would have been utilized.”
Two decades ago the word “handicapped” was often mentioned in whispers. Three decades ago, family doctors offered the brochures of special facilities to parents of special-needs children, gently suggesting an out-of-sight approach.
“There was a very different societal attitude about it,” said Gray. “There was a long time in society where we didn’t think people (with disabilities) were capable of doing things. We know now that’s not the case.”
Inclusive parks make sure there is something for everyone. At Nevin Park, swaying bridges and sensory equipment like chimes and color wheels fill the playground; Ropes, fire poles, slides, and tunnels dot the perimeter; plenty of ramps invite those who use wheelchairs to climb the tall timber lofts.
Shannon Burns of Lake Wylie, S.C., sees the benefits of inclusive playgrounds work for all kinds of kids.
“It’s great to teach able kids about disabilities, and it motivates disabled children to do things that other able children can do,” said Burns, who has taken her special-needs daughter Jennifer, now 16, to the park since it opened in 2008.
Society’s enlightenment toward inclusive play probably has a lot to do with today’s family dynamics. In this decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 1 in 6 children has a developmental disability. Many families have children both with and without disabilities, making inclusive playgrounds like the one in Nevin Park ideal.
“This is a place where everyone can go,” said Burns.
Mecklenburg County has embraced that philosophy. Since building Nevin Park was built, parks and recreation has added 16 other inclusive playgrounds.
“It’s becoming more a standard for how we develop and design,” said Gray. “When playgrounds are put in now, they’re done so with even a higher level of accessibility than what was before.”
Neighboring counties, such as Cabarrus, have followed suit. In 2010, the Concord Rotary Club raised $110,000 to install the Everybody Plays Playground at McGee Park.
As past attitudes about special-needs children continue to fade, Gray sees more opportunities for all kids in the future.
“People are starting to get back into embracing the differences of people, and not really having that expectation that everyone will do this uniform thing,” she said. “People have started recognizing that disabilities are just another type of diversity within the community.”