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A long battle for the right to play

May 25, 2011

By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard

NORTH KINGSTOWN – When a School Committee member unofficially told Lisa Windham that a playground with special equipment would be installed at Fishing Cove Elementary School, she was thrilled.
Her delight was short-lived.
Lisa's daughter, Laura, who turned seven last Friday, has been using a walker since she was three years old. She suffers from spastic paraplegia, a neuromuscular disease similar to cerebral palsy. For much of Laura's young life, her mother has campaigned to get handicapped-accessible playgrounds – first at Davisville Elementary and most recently at Fishing Cove – so her child can enjoy recess with her classmates.
“I was ecstatic [about the Fishing Cove news], then I found out they were doing the kindergarten playground,” says Lisa. “Laura was going into first grade.”
The school provides separate outdoor play areas for pupils through kindergarten age and those who are in first grade and up. While Laura can use the playground equipment, she can't get to it because the ground is covered in wood chips.
Lisa recalls telling School Committee member Larry Ceresi, “I have an issue with you doing this playground when my daughter has been waiting for two years.” Upon learning they planned to have Laura use the kindergarten playground, Lisa's response was, “Absolutely not. It's a civil rights issue. You're not taking my daughter away from her peers.”
Now, Lisa and her mom, businesswoman Jeannie Crist, who was been beside her all the way, can claim victory.
Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, enforced by the Rhode Island Governors Commission on Disabilities, the North Kingstown School Department has been instructed to comply with accessibility regulations.
Lisa says she wrote to Superintendent Dr. Phillip Thornton asking that the playground issue be resolved quickly. He sought clarification of the regulations. Meanwhile, Lisa called the commission and filed a complaint.
“I'd been told by Larry Ceresi and the committee that they'd do what's right according to the regulations. Then it started all over again.” She contacted the disabilities commission in February.
Lisa credits Thornton for taking action. As a result of his call and her complaint, Harvey Salvas, an ADA enforcement officer, visited Fishing Cove and made recommendations for the playground.
“He told them to move a swing and they did it right away,” Lisa says. “The ground surface does not meet the standard and has to be replaced. He recommended a [rubberized] surface at ground level similar to a cushioned basketball court. I'm to be involved in every aspect of this being done. It's a code but it's also specific to Laura.”
Ceresi says that, acting on Thornton's recommendation, the School Committee is moving forward with the project “to do the work that needs to be done in order to make this playground accessible.”
Noting that he himself is the parent of a special needs child, Ceresi says he doesn't think the ADA requirements go far enough, especially as they pertain to playground accessibility for children using walkers or wheelchairs.
“We could and should be more sensitive in considering what's in the best interest of the whole child. There are many social opportunities available on the playground. I know a lot of families who can empathize with the challenges [faced by Laura]. The mom and grandmom have done a wonderful job advocating for the child.”
According to Ned Draper, the school department's director of business services, plans are being sent to the disabilities commission and, if they meet all the standards, the job will be advertised for bids.
Because the school year is nearly over, school officials say work will probably be done over the summer with a goal of opening the playground when school resumes in the fall.
Edie Dunn, principal of Fishing Cove Elementary, points out that the school itself is completely handicapped-accessible. “Laura has access to every area of the school that others have including the salt marsh, which is an outdoor classroom, and a second outdoor classroom that was donated by parents,” she says.
Lisa, a single mother who works part-time managing a physical therapy office, says the family was unaware Laura was handicapped until they realized her motor skills weren't developing.
“We didn't know until she didn't walk. She was scooting on her bum. She started with a walker when she was three.” Today Laura receives both physical and occupational therapy twice a week at school and physical therapy once a week at home.
When Laura entered special-education preschool at Davisville, her mother recalls, “We went to the school department [because the school] didn’t have a special needs playground. We worked with the Special Education Local Advisory Committee [SELAC] which had already started” addressing the issue.
Private donations were made to underwrite the playground’s cost and, says Lisa, when the fund was still short at the last School Committee meeting, former member Mark Plimpton made a $1,000 personal donation.
“They put a beautiful playground back there,” she continues. “They had three to four pieces of equipment; high-back swings. They did a great job. It took SELAC years to get them to do that. Then the very next year they closed down Davisville. It was ridiculous.”
When she learned Laura would be attending Fishing Cove, Lisa visited the playground accompanied by the physical therapist and Principal Dunn. She found the surface unacceptable and, once again, she began advocating for her child.
Now that the issues are being resolved, Lisa says the process was like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
“The School Committee and the superintendent wanted to make their ideas fit her needs. It didn't work. They kept talking about budget [constraints]. I said it's not a budget issue; it's mandated. You can have no money and you still have to do it. It's federal law, the same as having a handicapped parking spot.”
Committee member Melvoid Benson, a retired teacher, who has consistently supported Laura's cause, had an observation for those who didn't want to spend money on the project.
“There but for the grace of God goes your child.”

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at mgs3dachs@cox.net.

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