What are cattle grids for? Well, they are designed to keep beasties either in or out of a specific area. So, imagine my daughter Emily's surprise when she actioned an emergency stop in her wheelchair right outside the local communal playground area. For there, right in front of her, was a cattle grid, preventing her access into the playground and stopping her social inclusion with her fantastic inclusive friends. No dogs allowed, bellowed the sign, so I mentally added in what the planners must have accidentally missed off, namely wheelchairs, guide dogs, walkers and crutches, doing their work for them, I don't know...
I do have a nerve, I mean, what sort of selfish individual like me campaigns for their disabled child to be included in society? I am surprised the local council don't just ignore people like me, always moaning on about how their child can't go anywhere because of ill thought out access! Oh, wait, hang on, they do.
There is an old rumour, older than Mary Berry, that insists disabled children, both with physical and mental disabilities, stay indoors cowering behind the curtains looking dewy eyed at other children as they play. God if this rumour is to be believed, then what the hell am I doing taking Emily outside?? I mean, if Emily and thousands like her were meant to leave the house, then there would be toilets she could use, trains she could catch, shops she could enter, and of course playgrounds she could play in. Thank the planners, shops and councils for taking the responsibility to keep children like Emily off the streets.
Imagine you were in a local council with all your magical financial powers, bit like Dumbledore but a bit less friendly and with unlimited expenses. Imagine that you have the power to design a social landscape, you fill with pride, with hair parted in the obligatory parliamentary side parting and begin the process of dividing up the council tax. You open the file marked "Excuses for not funding certain projects and communities" and begin.
I have seen this file, it's very well put together, it's printed by the publishers of such great works like "Disability and how to avoid it" and "If you build it, then they can't come." And inside it are the rules on financial expenditure for local amenities and projects. For instance, chapter one states that "You must, when asked, complain how expensive it is to accommodate disability in the commercial world and that disabled people don't like to do anything anyway as they are purely there to look good in photos with badly dressed Councillors." This essential file has saved many persons much embarrassment. Chapter four is by far the most succinct as it deals with how to avoid a direct answer to a question, stating "Beware! Parents and activists may ask you to respond to budgetary or inclusive questions, in this case always respond with a well-prepared paragraph or complain that the opposition really are much worse and look like students."
All this outlandish behavior of my part only causes Emily to accuse me and other parents of disabled children/young adults as "caring" and "trying to promote inclusion" what an embarrassment. But joking aside, there really does seem to be a lack of communication and dialogue with disabled children when planning playgrounds especially. Our local playground is the communal hub near Emily's school, and not only can she not access it in her wheelchair, but she can't even play on any equipment. When we sent an email of this nature to the local council, I think we terrified the park's department into opening that said file and diving straight to chapter four.
Disabled play areas exist, we have seen, but they are as rare as a working-class actor on the BBC. That is great, but these parks are often far away from families, and many are closing faster than a west end comedy written by Jeremy Vine. It's housing association areas, school areas, that need their playgrounds to be multi inclusive, all kids should have the luxury of outside play. Equipment is said to be expensive to build, so build it multi-accessible, more for your money, use imagination, wheelchair accessible swings, roundabouts, outdoor sensory equipment, but make them so children of all abilities can enjoy them, play equipment can be fun, colourful, vibrant and purposeful.
I sit here typing this article awaiting my invitation to join the disability planning committee, an olive branch handed to me by the local council after we displayed their ring-fenced playground on our local BBC. As a charity ambassador, columnist and global inclusion speaker, it never ceases to amaze me that councils and industry will only listen and offer to work with you if the behemoth of television sticks a camera in their face, shaming them into near hyperventilation to respond. It seems, thanks to the support of the media that Councillors will soon have to stop posing for awkwardly pointless pictures in front of exciting world changing "no litter signs", and delve a little deeper into their respective communities.
Will this offer of working together happen? Is the invite a media pleasing tease? I have learned over the years of pushing for an inclusive society that sadly I shouldn't expect much. In our Brexit and dull celebrity obsessed media, stories and important social issues like this shouldn't expect any response, well, unless I was making a point about inclusive play whilst arm wrestling Nigel Farage while bringing up the sad subject of Kim Kardashians pout going AWOL. Play for children assists confidence, social inclusion and exercise, access for disabled children gives them a sense of worth and a sense that someone cares. There is money to fund these playgrounds, if you do it sensibly, if you are a designer or planner looking for ideas, then just ASK the people who you are supposed to serve.
A playground for everyone, access for everyone, maybe talk to everyone.