Barnet opens UK’s first fully accessible playground

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Barnet opens UK’s first fully accessible playground

Jewish women driving force behind Fair Play project, allowing disabled and able-bodied kids to play together on specialist equipment

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Children playing on an accessible swing. Pic: Chanelle Joseph.
Children playing on an accessible swing. Pic: Chanelle Joseph.

Winnie O’Malley is only five, but she has almost never been able to play on swings or slides in her local park. That’s because she has cerebral palsy and uses a walker to help her get around — but her mum, Annika, says she’s now too big to lift onto standard playground equipment.

Like other families with disabled children, the O’Malleys avoid parks with their tempting chutes and see-saws, because Winnie can’t use the equipment. And when her mainstream nursery has events in a park, Winnie has to stand aside and watch as her able-bodied classmates scramble around having fun. Annika says: “It’s heartbreaking.”

All that is about to change thanks to a groundbreaking project which opens in East Barnet on Tuesday — Britain’s first fully accessible and inclusive playground, the Fair Play playground. It’s the brainchild of two Jewish women, Deborah Gundle and Nathalie Esfandi, together  with Belsize Square Synagogue member Angela Harding, who was awarded an OBE in 2014 for her work with deaf children.

Deborah Gundle’s son, Zach, has severe learning disabilities. A social entrepreneur and learning disabilities specialist, she has thrown herself into offering solutions for the profoundly disabled, particularly in the Jewish community. Her trademark is to say “yes, we can do this” — and has overcome many obstacles in doing what she can to achieve parity for the physically and learning disabled.

She has produced three films related to disability, and published two accessible prayer books for people with learning disabilities. Her playground co-founder, Nathalie Esfandi, previously founded a business specialising in educational placemats for children, and works extensively supporting children who face challenges — whether in education or in the field of disabilities.

Deborah Gundle said: “As a mother with a disabled son, I know how difficult it is for families like ours to be able to play together. A lot of hard work has gone into this project, and seeing the equipment being used by disabled and non-disabled children side-by-side is incredibly rewarding. I’d love for every playground to allow people of all ages and abilities to play in this way, and we hope Fair Play will act as the blueprint for new playgrounds up and down the country”.

She added: “Inclusive play will reduce stigma, through positive experiences in a society where social integration and physical fitness are important to all of us.” Gundle noted that the East Barnet playground was “designed to be a model for other councils and public landscape developers. We are trying to do what Beit Issie Shapiro successfully did in Israel: they built an inclusive playground, which then led to the creation of many more inclusive playgrounds across other municipalities ”. (There are now 60 plus such playgrounds in Israel, modelled on Beit Issie Shapiro’s first one.)

The Fair Play playground, the first of its kind, has been designed in co-ordination with disabled residents, parents, carers and accessibility experts, and features play equipment that everyone, able-bodied or with disabilities, can use. The women worked with a specialist company, Kompan, to include structures which spin, rock, and swing, along with sensory panels for touch, movement and sound — all selected with the disability community in mind.

Solid safety surfacing across the whole play area ensures it is wheelchair accessible, and the picnic area allows wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users to sit together. There are also communication boards for non-verbal people to use, along with a textured path surface to support visually impaired users to navigate, and only one entrance and exit to ensure users won’t leave without their carer’s knowledge. Gundle’s hope is that companies which now make playground equipment “will start to provide and design more accessible swings and rides, which can be used by everyone”.

The Fair Play playground — in the Victoria Recreation Ground in Park Road, East Barnet — cost half a million to build. The money has come from independent funding and donations, including £100,000 from Barnet Council. Councillor Nagus Narenthira, the Mayor of Barnet, said she was honoured to open the inclusive playground on Tuesday, adding: “It’s wonderful to see so many people of all ages and abilities being able to play together. We are fortunate in Barnet to have had such a wonderful team of fundraisers to help achieve this and I hope this is a model that we can see more of in future.”

As for Winnie O’Malley, whose mum drove all the way from Lambeth for a pre-opening trial run of the playground last week — she was in ecstasy. Annika O’Malley said: “It was just a complete joy. It took her half an hour to understand that she can go up the play structure, and it was the first time since she was a little baby that I could go down the slide with her. She was in absolute heaven. She went on a see-saw with Deborah’s son Zach — it was just pure joy.”

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