Mike Suarez sits quietly at the edge of the sidewalk, watching kids buzz around the playground at Crestview Elementary School.
One child rockets down a slide. Another lurches awkwardly across the monkey bars. Mike’s mom, Amber Suarez, reminds the 9-year-old to apply the brakes on his wheelchair so he doesn’t roll onto the gravel that covers the play area.
Mike is quick to say that recess is his favorite part of coming to Crestview. He has a long list of friends in his fourth grade class — but Mike can’t fully be included with them outside the classroom.
Watching his friends play on the swings and other equipment each day makes him “kind of sad,” he said.
Decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, accessibility gaps remain. The initial standards for ADA compliance didn’t include playgrounds; standards adopted in 2010 require that accessible routes be built into each playground if the surface is not entirely accessible.
Crestview Elementary in Holladay was built in 1961 before the ADA was passed, but it’s held to that 2010 standard, said Nate Crippes, public affairs supervising attorney with the Utah Disability Law Center. Years later, the playground remains inaccessible — because accessibility changes aren’t required until sites are updated, and due to a lack of funding, said Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley.
Crestview is now due for an update, and will allocate $50,000 toward the playground in fiscal year 2023, Horsley said.
But Mike and Amber Suarez are dreaming bigger than the ADA minimum. A fully accessible playground — with a rubber surface, a wheelchair accessible teeter-totter and railings for the existing equipment to prevent Mike from falling off — would cost $300,000 to build, according to the district. A GoFundMe account has raised more than $7,500 so far.
Suarez began the project after she attended a PTA meeting and saw her son sitting off to the side of the playground, she said. It broke her heart.
“You can imagine for a nine-year-old, he wants to be on the playground,” she said. “He wants to be involved.”
‘We’re not limiting my son’
Mike was born with spina bifida, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. Paralyzed from the belly button down for as long as he can remember, Mike has relied on video games and his family for entertainment.
Granite School District offers a playground that is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at Hartvigsen School in Taylorsville. However, Hartvigsen School specifically serves students with disabilities.
The Suarez family wants Mike to be able to play at his neighborhood school, where his mom can walk to pick him up after school.
“We’re not limiting my son to a school with just disabled kids,” Suarez said. “We would like him to grow up in a typical environment to be more social and just be in a public school … Crestview has been the best school for my daughters who are in junior high now … It’s a school that we’ve stayed in this area because of.”
Suarez enlisted the help of social media influencer Karina Perez, her childhood friend, and Chelsea Johnson, president of Crestview Elementary’s playground committee, to propose a more accessible playground to the district. Johnson developed a blueprint for the playground while Perez spread the word about the need for funding, starting with a $1,000 donation of her own.
Horsley said the district is happy to work on a compromise if the funding goal isn’t met. And Suarez said she understands the district’s budget limitations and wants to work with Granite to build the best playground they can for Mike.
While Mike was younger, Suarez didn’t often take him to playgrounds because there aren’t many accessible ones near her home in Holladay. Mike didn’t know what he was missing then, she said. But as he got older and watched his older sisters adventuring through playgrounds in parks and at McDonald’s restaurants, it started to affect him more.
“It’s heartbreaking to watch him have to go through that and watch other kids have fun and he’s stuck in a chair,” Suarez said.
Socialization is the primary function of play for children, said Chris Murphy, information specialist for Rocky Mountain ADA Center. Kids need to play with each other, Murphy said, and the more freely they can do that, the more it will benefit them.
“Developing social skills is a huge part of what childhood is about and denying children the ability to socialize with their friends because of inaccessible facilities denies them the ability to reach their potential as adults,” Murphy said.
Separating disabled kids from their nondisabled peers also impacts how they see each other, said Crippes with the Utah Disability Law Center.
“For the kids without disabilities, to never really interact with or get to experience working with a student with disabilities, it kind of perpetuates the cycle we have now,” Crippes said, where “people with disabilities have extremely high unemployment rates and find it difficult to find jobs.”
The ADA and playgrounds
The standard for playgrounds built prior to 1990 is that they should updated to provide a level of accessibility that is “readily achievable,” Crippes said.
That definition is a bit murky, he acknowledged, but accommodations need to be made unless they’re too great of a physical or financial undertaking to be viable. If it’s too expensive or would compromise the safety of a building to build a ramp to the bathroom, for example, another bathroom should be installed elsewhere.
The $300,000 playground that would best suit Mike’s needs may not be considered “readily achievable,” which means it isn’t required, Crippes noted, but that doesn’t mean the playground can’t be updated to be more equitable.
Granite School District, on average, has the oldest schools buildings in the state, Horsley said.
Funding for construction and maintenance comes from the district’s capital funds — generated from property taxes paid by homeowners in its boundaries — but the funds fall well short of needed repairs. Horsley estimates that in all, buildings in the district need repairs that would cost more than $1 billion.
Without an increase in property taxes or additional funding from the Legislature, the district will have to make do with the funds it already receives, despite rising construction costs and inflation.
“We’ve committed some funds towards that [Crestview playground] project, as much as we have the ability to do so,” Horsley said, “but you can imagine when we have 60 elementary schools, we have to be very judicious and equitable about how we fund each of those projects.”
The biggest difference between what Amber and Mike Suarez want — and would like the district to provide — and what it is required to install under ADA standards has to do with the surface of the playground. The standards allow for several types of materials to be used on a playground, including engineered wood fibers, foam and rubber pours, and rubber tiling.
A foam and rubber pour, where layers of foam are covered with a harder layer of rubber, would be the easiest for Mike to navigate, but it’s more expensive to install than engineered wood fiber, Murphy said.
Engineered wood fiber is poured, watered and compacted in layers to create a surface strong enough to be rolled on in a wheelchair. However, Murphy warned that if it is not raked and maintained properly, engineered wood fiber will deteriorate into a state that is unusable for a person in a wheelchair.
Granite School District will also need to evaluate its playground components and consider changes if no pieces can be used by children in a wheelchair, Murphy said. No matter how much funding is raised, though, the district has “an obligation to make sure that all students have access to the play area,” Crippes said.
Accessibility and education
The Utah Disability Law Center shares Suarez’s concern about separating disabled and nondisabled students. The center filed a lawsuit in December against Salt Lake City School District on behalf of two students, over the district’s system of “hub schools” with specialized programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The hub system, the center argues, unnecessarily isolates these students from their neighborhood school and requires them to spend more time on buses.
“We have a level of concern about the number of school districts that seem to be creating disability specific schools,” Crippes said. Under the ADA, he said, “I think potentially could be a form of segregation.”
Offering specialized schools for disabled students deepens the stigma between disabled children and their nondisabled peers, Crippes said.
The Salt Lake City School District has not filed an answer and a spokesperson said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Crippes pointed to neighborhood schools as a model for integration because they allow disabled students to engage with the community they live in.
“We want kids with disabilities to be, as I think the law requires, integrated, [in] inclusive settings as much as humanly possible,” Crippes said. “And that’s kids in the general education classroom, not in a special education classroom.” Isolation from nondisabled peers from a young age, he said, causes “very real harms” that “go well beyond the educational context.”