A stranger might think Lizzette Torres is shy, since she speaks so softly it’s sometimes hard to hear her.
Lizzette, 5, is far from shy, but her body — including her vocal cords — is weakened by cerebral palsy. Still, sitting in her wheelchair with pink rims, she tells her mom again and again, “I want to play.”
Playing for Lizzette and her family can seem more like a chore, says her mom, Christian Torres.
Fort Worth’s only all-inclusive playground — built in 1992 with ramps and sensory games for kids with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs — is at Patricia LeBlanc Park in the far southwest corner of the city.
And though the park is set for a $400,000 makeover from the 2014 bond package, and several other parks including Northside are being updated to meet current accessibility requirements, Torres and other special needs advocates say the city isn’t doing enough to help Fort Worth’s disabled people with wider access to better facilities.
To make playgrounds fun for all kids, Torres wants the city to build universal, accessible playgrounds, which have wheelchair ramps going up to all levels, a rubberized surface that makes wheeling a chair easy, and sensory games.
But the space and money needed to build universal playgrounds makes that impossible at all of Fort Worth’s 186 neighborhood playgrounds, said David Creek, assistant director of parks and community services.
For Lizzette, that means the kiddie swings she will outgrow soon are the only part of Northside Park she can easily take part in, and she is often left behind when her 3-year-old sister runs the short distance to the jungle gym.
Even that 15-foot distance is difficult for Lizzette, because it’s tough to get her wheelchair across the gravel in the play area.
“It is just so physical for them and for us, as parents,” Torres said. “Your back hurts and she wants to get up; she wants to do it, but she can’t. She gets frustrated.”
All of Fort Worth’s parks met accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act when they were built, Creek aid, but the older playgrounds do not have to be upgraded as new ADA guidelines are established.
The city’s goal is to replace the equipment every 20 years, Creek said, and Northside Park’s playground is set to be replaced this year with money from the 2014 bond program.
The new $145,000 playground will include engineered wood fiber surfacing, which is approved under ADA, to replace the gravel. It will have a transfer station that allows mobility-impaired people to leave their chair to get to the elevated decks, and it will have ground-level activities for those who cannot, Creek said.
“It is going to meet the neighborhood’s needs, and it is going to meet all of the accessibility requirements that are in place,” Creek said. “Ten or 15 years from now, things may change. We don’t know what that is going to be and we don’t have control over that.”
Torres Blanca Welsh, whose 3-year-old daughter also uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, says meeting the ADA requirements does not necessarily make a park inclusive to all.
For example, Welsh said, even the wood fiber surface is hard to navigate with a wheelchair.
“It is the same as gravel; you get too much in one spot and under her wheels, especially with her weighing it down,” Welsh said of her daughter, Sofia.
Sofia and her three older brothers all enjoy the universal playgrounds more, Welsh said, but the drive there ranges from 30 to 45 minutes.
“Her brothers, they don’t feel different because they don’t have to leave her on the sidelines. And they don’t get tired of pushing her around or carrying her,” Welsh said. “The best part of it is they don’t get embarrassed, like, ‘Oh my sister is different.’ ”
And for Sofia, “everything is at her level,” Welsh said. “She can actually feel and touch and put her hands on it to make noises or move stuff.”
Amber Holmes, managing director of the Down Syndrome Partnership of North Texas, said universal parks not only help special needs children but also engage their peers.
“We know it is not easy to change all the parks at once. But in new parks, you could build ramps as opposed to stairs and simple things to make it easier for our kids to play with their peers and it gives them the same playing ground,” said Holmes, who has a 5-year-old with Down syndrome.
“Adaptable parks are not less fun for other kids,” she said.
LeBlanc Park, built for $275,000 from all-private donations and constructed largely by volunteers, was the country's first fully accessible playground, said Jennifer Harnish, a founder of the park and a board member at the National Recreation and Park Association.
Now, Creek said, the all-wood 24-year-old structure desperately needs replacement. In fact, if the playground had not been included for replacement in the city’s 2014 bond program — at a cost of $400,000 — it would be in danger of being torn down.
The new playground at LeBlanc Park, slated to be finished in May, will include the desired rubber surface for wheelchairs, be completely ramped and have sensory games, Creek said. An additional $65,000 will go to improving that park from its original endowment.
Harnish said the city does the best it can with the resources it has to provide universal play.
“If you have a kid climbing on something and then another kid spinning a steering wheel at the bottom, it is universal play, but it’s not the best creative play necessarily. And that gets down to funding. Everything gets down to funding,” she said.
Barriers to playing
Even seemingly simple changes to playgrounds, like adding ramps, take a lot more money and a lot more space, said Scott Penn , superintendent of trades infrastructure for the parks department.
ADA-approved ramps cannot be too steep, which means that a 1-foot-tall deck would require a 20-foot-long ramp that is 8 feet wide.
Though most neighborhood parks, like Northside, are 4,500-5,000 square feet, a universal park needs to be 17,000-20,000 square feet, Penn said.
“By having to add those things into a playground you are going to take away four or five different elements that accommodate 300 kids who are going to use them to accommodate three” children, Penn said as an example.
“So that is why it is a destination facility, because it is such a smaller part of the population. It is a population that needs to be served, but it is smaller than the other folks who are going to use other playground elements.”
Of the 83,421 students enrolled in the Fort Worth school district, 6,401, about 8 percent, have special needs, and Penn said the city needs to consider demographics when deciding where to put universal parks.
Inclusive parks also cost upward of $500,000 — more than triple the cost of a typical playground.
Danielle Sanchez, mother of an 18-year-old with Down syndrome, said she will try to raise the $45,000 needed to get at least the rubberized surface at Northside Park. But she added that parents shouldn’t have to raise the money, saying the city is just not prioritizing the special needs population highly enough.
“We don’t just live in one area. We have a need everywhere,” Sanchez said.
She is frustrated that the city’s second dog park, to be located in Z Boaz Park, received funding from the bond program when the city has only one universal park.
Creek said the city will work with north-side residents to see whether there are more ground elements that can be added to that playground.
“We do see a need for universal playgrounds and that is why we had four of them identified in the unfunded capital needs list that went through the last bond process. Unfortunately, they didn’t make the list for funding consideration,” Creek said.
Dream Park planned for Fort Worth
The city may not have enough money to spread universal parks around, but a nonprofit group in Fort Worth is hoping to build a $1.5 million universal park in the central city.
Her son, Cash, does not have a disability, but Churchill said he loved everything about the special park.
Churchill’s group is working with the city to identify a location for Dream Park. The city is completing a traffic study at Trinity Park to determine whether that centrally located park could handle the extra movement, Creek said.
Once a location is identified, Churchill said, the Dream Park board will start fundraising; it hopes to break ground on the park by January 2016.
Churchill said it will “touch many families in lots of different ways,” even allowing parents and guardians with disabilities to be more active in their kids’ playtime.
And more parks like that would mean that Lizzette could follow her little sister throughout the playground.
“I want to play with the other kids, but I need my little sister,” Lizzette said. “I want her to play with me.”