Wanting to fit in with friends and classmates is natural for any third-grader and no less so for Kailee Sharp, even though she has cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair.
From her miniature “Girls Rule” license plate to the Justin Bieber backpack hanging from the back of the chair, Kailee’s world is little different from that of her playmates. She just has more difficulty getting around.
So when she goes to the playground at Poage Elementary School, where there is only one handicap-adapted swing and where the motorized wheels on her chair slip on the bark mulch surface, Kailee sometimes feels a bit left out.
It isn’t because the other children ignore her. Poage is structured as an inclusive school and its students, handicapped and non-handicapped, study and play together most of the day.
However, the swing is offset in a corner of the playground. Under most circumstances her friends will help her on and off and play with her while she swings. But often the sheer volume of playground chatter, and their own concentration on the spiral slide that is the nearest piece of equipment, drowns out her calls to them.
And because motoring her chair over the mulch is difficult, Kailee often can’t maneuver herself into the conversation circles where other children are swapping jokes or making after-school plans. “It frustrates her. She just wants to play with her classmates,” said her mother, Dorothy Giles. “Sometimes she’d rather stay inside because she can’t do anything out there.”
Kailee is not the only child so encumbered at Poage, which is the designated school in the Ashland district for the most severely handicapped children, including some who are autistic and others, like Kailee, who have mobility issues. The playground simply isn’t adequate for them, said kindergarten teacher Betsy Moore.
The mulch surface complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but in reality it isn’t suitable for wheelchair needs.
What they need is an extension of the existing playground with equipment adapted for special needs kids, with a wheelchair-friendly surface.
They don’t want a separate playground, because that would be counter to the school’s inclusion policy; the design under consideration would add a new section on the side of the playground facing 29th Street and would include several pieces of equipment suitable for all children, including those with special needs.
The existing playground would remain mostly unchanged, but children — whether special-needs or not — could run, walk or wheel from one to the other and mingle freely.
School officials envision making the playground open to the community outside school hours and in the summer, Moore said. That would encourage parents of special needs children to bring their kids there, she said.
The surface they are considering is a tough yet springy composition on which wheels will roll but forgiving in the event of falls. Unfortunately the surfacing roughly doubles the cost of the playground.
The school and its boosters have raised about $10,000 through donations and fundraisers and the district is prepared to kick in about $30,000, principal Bob Blankenship said. Further donations would be required for the rest of the approximately $58,000 cost.
District officials are talking to the city about chipping in as well, since the playground would serve the community.
Moore believes a playground should be a refuge where children don’t have to dwell on disabilities, lack of mobility or other issues that sometimes separate them from their schoolmates and friends. “Out here, you should just be able to play,” she said. “It’s the one time of day that kids should be able to be the same.”
Anyone who wants to donate may contact the school at (606) 327-2734. The school has set up an account for donations.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.