When I walk onto a playground with my son, kids stare. They take in his hot pink crutches. They notice the braces on his legs. I’d like to think that they also notice his bright smile and think that he looks like a kid that would be fun to play with, but I don’t know. I do know that they notice that he looks different from other kids, and that he moves differently. And now, at five, my son notices kids noticing.
He doesn’t let it get to him too much, unless he’s laid his crutches down and a curious kid picks them up, thinking they’re a toy and free game, or unless another child asks him about his abilities. As a four-year-old, he would cheerfully explain that his equipment helps him balance and walk. These days, as a kindergartener, he is over having to explain himself and how he exists in the world to others, and I don’t blame him.
Lately, when kids have questions that he doesn’t feel like answering, I will ask him if he would like me to explain things for him, and he usually says yes. And so I answer their questions: no, his body isn’t broken. It works great. It just works differently than theirs does. His crutches, braces, and walker are all tools that help him balance and walk. They help him access the world as fully and completely as they do.
That isn’t quite true, though.
There is no more stark a reminder of the limitations my son has when it comes to full access as when we go to the playground. My son loves going to the park, but there is very little on most playgrounds that he can access safely and independently. The new playground by our house has amazing natural features like downed logs and tiered wooden steps that move.
My early childhood educator heart soared the first time I saw the new playground; my mama heart sunk, realizing the only feature of the new playground that was accessible to my son was the ADA accessible swing.
You’ve probably seen these swings, and may not know what they’re for. They’re typically situated next to the other swings. They’re oversized, plastic, and brightly colored. These swings were designed and installed to be used by children with disabilities. They exist in order to allow children who are unsafe in traditional swings to access the playground as typically developing children do. They’re awesome. And their awesomeness seems to appeal to everyone.
I cannot count how many times I’ve taken my son to a playground to find these swings in use by typically developing children. And I get the appeal. They’re large and colorful and, because there’s often only one, a novel feature of the playground.
But man, I really wish that parents would teach their children that these types of swings are intended for kids with disabilities. That their purpose is to keep kids safe, when other swings can’t. I wish that as parents, we were more comfortable with the idea that not everything is for everybody.
These swings were designed and built for kids with disabilities. That’s why they exist. But for some reason, adults like to argue about this. I’m not sure why parents of typically developing children feel like their children need to access equipment intended for kids with disabilities, but let’s examine some of the common arguments I’ve heard.
“If nobody else is using it, why can’t my kid?”
Because, Susan, there are six other swings on this playground that your child can safely use. There are zero other swings here that a child with a disability can safely use. Every other piece of playground equipment is designed for typically developing kids. Why do we expect a child with a disability to wait for the one swing specifically intended for their use because it is occupied by a child that doesn’t need it, when literally everything else on the playground is at their disposal?
If there are regular swings available for your typically developing child to use, those are the swings that they should use. And if there aren’t? Maybe try the slide or the rock wall while you wait for a swing to become available. I’m willing to bet you don’t use the motorized scooters in the grocery store if you don’t have a physical need for them; these swings are a child’s version of that.
I totally get that it seems harmless to use it while the park is relatively unoccupied, or it seems no one else is interested in it, but that leads to the next point…
“If a kid with a disability comes along, I’ll gladly tell my child to share.”
First, how do you know which kids have disabilities? Many children experience invisible disabilities. Assuming that we know who does and does not experience disability is ableist. Furthermore, the onus should not be on children (or parents of children) with disabilities to request to use the equipment that was placed there specifically for them to use.
Often, these swings are the only piece of inclusive equipment on the playground. To monopolize it when you don’t actually need it, and expect the people who do need it to approach you and ask for a turn, is an entitled perspective. I know what you’re going to say: “how hard is it to ask for a turn?” Well, that leads to the next point…
“Kids with disabilities need to learn to advocate for themselves!”
For starters, some kids with disabilities literally can’t ask for a turn or verbally advocate for themselves, so there’s that. Moreover, kids with disabilities — and their families — spend their entire lives advocating for basic access to every aspect of society. Once we achieve a sliver of equality and have a piece of accessible playground equipment, we then have to advocate for our right to use it? Many kids with disabilities don’t have the option of other choices at most parks. It’s the ADA swing or bust.
It doesn’t seem fair or kind to put kids with disabilities in the awkward position of advocating for what is meant for them when the rest of the playground is, literally, your child’s playground. Why not simply reserve the adaptive equipment for the people who need it?
In our culture, we talk a lot about equality. Equality is when we all get the same thing, and it sounds great in theory. What this misses is the fact that we don’t all have the same needs. That is where equity comes in. Equity is when everyone gets what they need, which means that everyone may not get exactly the same thing, but that’s okay because through equity, everyone has fair access to opportunity.
So when we look at the adaptive swing with equality in mind, it seems obvious: if it’s available, it’s first come, first served, just share it with those who may need it more than you. But if we approach the swing with an equity lens, our considerations shift, as we become aware that this swing isn’t just another option for the kids it was placed here for; it is the only option.
And that being the case, the respectful and compassionate thing to do is to teach our children that this is a swing we save for kids who need it; kids who don’t have other options on this playground. That is how we make space. That is how we show respect and consideration for people whose needs may be different from our own. This is how we build community.
In a broader context, this respect for the rights and needs of others is also how we teach our sons to care about consent; how white parents teach their children to be anti-racist; how we teach straight, cis-gendered children to honor and fight for GLBTQ folks. We have to teach our kids to see one another for who they are, meet one another where they are at, and think about what we can do to make life a little bit easier and more fair for one another. And that begins on the playground.