Water Wheels

The UK is heading for a very hot weekend with record breaking temperatures expected over the next few days. Many people will head to public fountains, paddling pools or waterplay areas to cool off.

I live in South London and there are some great places for waterplay including the fountains at Southbank Centre, the new water area at Elephant Park and the refurbished paddling pool in Ruskin Park to name but a few.

A brightly coloured image. In the foreground is a water play area, where a child is playing, wearing an orange baseball cap, a bright blue top and a bright pink rubber ring. In the background on the right is a wheelchair user, sitting on the surrounding pavement area in their chair. Water Wheels is written in clouds and balloons.

I headed to the Ruskin Park paddling pool with my five-year old niece Bean this afternoon. On arrival she looked at me anxiously and asked, ‘is it accessible?’ I responded by saying that I didn’t think it was and suggested that we look at it together to work out how we could best play.

I sat on the edge while she hunted for sea monster body parts, bringing them to me so I could piece our monster together. I’m well practised at having to find imaginative work-arounds because of a lack of access – but I really wish I didn’t have to.

There are many waterplay areas in London and beyond that could easily be accessible to wheelchair users. Most have level access and would require little or no largescale work to make this possible.

The problem is that most wheelchairs are metal and don’t take kindly to getting wet. However, there’s a simple solution to this: ‘waterproof wheelchairs’ designed specifically for environments like swimming pools. They cost about £2300 each, too much for most individuals, but not a huge amount for a city as wealthy as London.

In many seaside communities you can now hire beach wheelchairs, often for a small refundable deposit, and I can see a similar model working well for waterplay chairs. Venues would keep the chairs safe when not in use, making them available to book online in the summer months. They would be opening up their spaces for inclusive play and memory-making.

This might seem like a small issue, but so many of my most joyful memories of play involved water, and I don’t see why disabled children or disabled parents and carers should miss out.

Of course, access to play spaces isn’t just a seasonal issue. Inequality is baked into playgrounds up and down the country as has been shown by Scope’s recent campaign Let’s Play Fair.

The reason Bean knew to ask if the paddling pool was accessible is that she’s already learnt to expect the barriers.

Playgrounds matter because they centre the experiences of children. It’s where they make friends, build skills, and learn about themselves.

What disabled children are learning from our playgrounds is that they’re not welcome and shouldn’t expect the same access to play and be joyful. This is the brutal reality of nearly all playgrounds – but it’s seemingly invisible to most families and decision-makers.

This isn’t just an issue for disabled kids or disabled parent and carers, and it’s about more than access to play – it’s about establishing the expectations of the next generation of disabled leaders.

I’m tired of having to justify why play matters, I’m bored of seeing playgrounds being praised for their ‘inclusive’ excellence because they’ve got one piece of accessible equipment.

Disabled children, parents and carers exist everywhere ¬– if you don’t see us in your community and in your playgrounds it’s because we’ve found that there’s nothing there for us there. If we want disabled kids to know that they matter, we must act on the things that matter to them.

As a disabled adult and an aunty, I demand that public spaces consider me and my niece and her disabled peers. This is a key priority for disability rights, justice, and culture.

I’d like to see disabled children and adults being supported to lead on both long-term change and short-term interventions. It’s time for Councils, housing associations and play providers to commit to a ‘no new barriers to play’ policy– anything less is short-changing future generations.

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