WATERTOWN — A mother has complained to the city that her 5-year-old boy cannot use the Thompson Park playground because she says it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Chantel Taylor has told city officials that the playground’s woodchip surface makes it almost impossible for her son, Ashton, to maneuver around the playground or use its equipment.
With his cerebral palsy making him unable to use his hands or feet, the boy gets around in a specialized walker, called a “gait trainer.”
But the loose woodchips make it difficult for him to maneuver around the playground, use any of the stations in the playground or connect with other children, his mother said.
“How can he play with other children?” she said. “He’s isolated and segregated. He cannot even watch them play.”
She has filed an ADA complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, citing that the woodchips violate the ADA .
Two years ago, the $385,000 playground opened with much fanfare after it replaced a 29-year-old wooden one that fell into disrepair.
At the time, city officials claimed the new equipment was ADA compliant and gave children of all ages and abilities a chance to play on it, including children in wheelchairs.
But Mrs. Taylor said her son has been left on the sidelines, unable to enjoy the equipment like other children. She’s also complained about the lack of handicapped parking, ramps at curbs and the delay in a sidewalk construction project in the park.
In May, she complained about the situation to Erin E. Gardner, the city’s parks and recreation superintendent.
According to ADA regulations and guidelines, minimum standards do not require entire playgrounds to be accessible. Instead, playgrounds need to have access to the entry of the play area and at least one connection to each component.
“We jumped on everything that we could get done immediately,” Ms. Gardner said. “The other complaints that she had, we’re still working on.”
To make it fully compliant, she has advocated that a rubberized surface should be installed, so that her son can get on to the playground and then get around on it.
The city also hasn’t properly maintained the woodchips on a daily basis, making it more difficult for Ashton to get around the playground, she said.
They go to the playground almost every day, driving over from their State Street home, where she and her husband William have completed several modifications, including installing an elevator and making their bathrooms completely handicapped accessible.
Last week, she and Ashton visited the playground on a steamy summer afternoon when just a handful of children were playing on it.
When she got there, Mrs. Taylor removed the walker and a stroller from the back of the family SUV. She first placed her son in the stroller and had to get help to get the walker over to the playground.
Once over at the playground, Mrs. Taylor placed Ashton into the walker to show how difficult it is for him. Several times, the loose woodchips clogged up into the walker’s small set of wheels, causing it to get stuck.
She said that she just wants to make it safer for all children to prevent injuries and a possible lawsuit against the city.
The playground is often used by children from the Disabled Persons Action Organization and clients from Northern Regional Center for Independent Living, she said.
Since May, Ms. Gardner and the young mother have talked to each other several other times and exchanged numerous emails about the playground and other ADA-related issues at Thompson Park.
Mrs. Gardner insisted engineers with the company that designed the playground, Parkitects, Buffalo, made sure that the woodchips surface was ADA compliant.
According to a report provided by Parkitects, the Woodcarpet engineered wood fiber surface is designed to reduce injuries.
Before it was built, there was some early talk about a rubberized surface but it was determined it would have cost too much and the material would not last long in the north country winter weather, said Jennifer Voss, the city’s senior city planner who was a member of the playground committee.
However, Mrs. Taylor believes that cost was a mitigating reason for not providing a rubber surface. Ms. Gardner acknowledged that the city would have completed about half of the playground with a $385,000 budget if that kind of material was installed.
Ms. Gardner, who worked as a recreation therapist at several nursing homes before becoming the parks superintendent, said she understands that Mrs. Taylor is “advocating for her child.”
Since first talking to Mrs. Taylor, Ms. Gardner got a quote that it would cost $255,000 to install a rubberized surface. She also is looking for state grants that would pay for the rubber surface.
“We’re doing everything we can,” she said, noting the city is active in resolving other ADA issues when they’ve come up, such as installing dozens of handicapped curb ramps at intersections across the city.
Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. plans to talk to the mother to find out more about the situation.
“I would like to work with her to make things better for her child and other children,” he said.
Mrs. Taylor plans to file a formal complaint with the city’s ADA officer, Matthew Roy, after hearing that was another option. She contended the city should act quicker on the curb ramps in the park.
Two handicapped parking spaces were quickly created after Mrs. Taylor pointed out the problem in May.
The city received a $50,000 boost from the state to help finance the playground project. The remainder of its cost will came from the 2016-17 capital improvements budget.