Episode 15: Oakledge For All


In this episode, Vermont Children’s Integrated Services project director Julia Wayne talks with Nate Besio and Annie Bourdon about Oakledge For All, a project aimed at bringing a fully accessible playground to Burlington VT.

Nate Besio is a person with a disability, and Annie Bourdon is the parent of a child with a disability, and they both relate how they got involved with the playground project, how the project has progressed so far, and what advice they’d give to other people looking to create an accessible playground in their own community.

“The one thing that’s really impressed me about this is the involvement of the community; community representatives meeting members of the disabled community — getting involved. Also, quite frankly, we’ve had a lot of support from Burlington Parks n’ Recreation Department. They’ve gotten involved. That being said: it’s not without its struggles.” –Nate Besio

A full transcript is available below.

Julia Wayne: In this episode, we’re going to talk about accessible playgrounds and one accessible playground in particular, Oakledge For All. And how it worked, and what we learned and what we’d like to share with other people who are trying to make their own playgrounds more accessible. So I’m Julia Wayne, I work at CDCI contracting with Children’s Integrated Services as their personnel development coordinator.

And my guests today are Nate Besio and Annie Bourdon. Welcome, both of you. Thanks so much for being here.

Annie Bourdon: Thank you, Julia.

Julia: Yeah.

Nate Besio: Thank you. My pleasure.

Julia: So can you introduce yourselves? What town you live in and how you’re connected to Oakledge For All project.

Annie: Okay. I’m Annie Bourden. I live in Burlington, Vermont, and I am connected to Oakledge For All as a longtime volunteer because my family lives in the neighborhood in the south end of Burlington and that’s really close to Oakledge For All. And our son has disabilities and hasn’t been able to play in our communities playgrounds yet. He will soon, or he’s starting to with the arrival of Oakledge For All. So kind of that awareness of the lack of inclusive playgrounds and play areas and not just our neighborhood, but our entire city and state is what got me involved with wanting to change that.

Nate: And my name is Nate Besio. I’m actually from Colchester, but I work at the Vermont Center for Independent Living (VCIL) in our Burlington office. I’m a peer advocate coordinator, which means I oversee our operations in the East Chittenden County and Northwest portion of the state, and our office is located on Pine Street. So my involvement has been kind of evolving since I first got involved.

I got involved mainly through work as part of our systems advocacy. I had heard about the Oakledge For All project probably in its pretty early stages, I had already been involved. It intrigued me, I went to a meeting, heard about it. I thought it would be an outstanding project for VCIL and myself to get involved in. I’m a big advocate for getting people with disabilities more involved in recreation activities.

I’m also a person with a physical disability, I use a power wheelchair and I was involved there from work capacity. Then I had a son a little over two years ago and it became much more personal to me because he’s at the age where we start going to playgrounds and I’m now noticing that I can’t be involved in playing with him because I can’t participate in any of the activities that he is. So it’s become a much more personal endeavor for me at this point.

Julia:  Thanks to you both. Thanks for sharing. So could one of you describe the Oakledge For All project and what it has achieved so far?

Annie: Gosh, I feel like we both probably could with different perspectives. So from my perspective, Oakledge For All is a beautiful grassroots effort led by you, Julia, as you know.

And all of us volunteers to create something amazing and symbolic and also really fill a practical need in our community. And it’s to create a universally accessible, inclusive playground and it always, I think that is what the goal was from the onset and it has evolved and shifted as we’ve been able to start new partnerships. Maybe evolve some partnerships, and continue to persist and push and advocate for this playground. And it has not come easily.

It’s wonderful, but it’s also still sometimes a little bit heartbreaking that it’s taken more than a decade to have this come to fruition. It will be fantastic. And it already has some pieces that are fantastic, but it has been a slow going project. But well worth the wait I think.

That’s not a very articulate answer for what it means. And I think it’s going to be a place that again, is for not just for children, it’s for everybody, for people of all ages, but with a fundamental at the core, fundamental values of inclusion, affection, friendship, fostering community. Everyone is welcome. And I hope it will be a model for many other playgrounds throughout our community and our country.

Nate: Yeah. So just to tag on to that, I have really been so impressed at everybody involved in Oakledge For All. And I see that in the fact that it is not only been it was a grassroots effort, again started by you, Julia, but the one thing that’s really impressed me about it is it’s involved members of the community and it has involved people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities. Which when I think about when projects are made, the feedback from those members of the community are not always involved.

So you have members of a law or have a cookie cutter idea of what it is to be quote unquote “accessible.” And a lot of times those aren’t inclusive and they don’t really include people with disabilities. So a lot of times when a new playground is built, it may follow the parameters of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but in the end, it’s not practical.

It is something that may in order to be really accessible, it needs to be perfectly maintained all the time or the accessible portions are not integrated with the other portions. So you might have what’s called like an accessible swing, which is like way over on the side, so the children are playing over there. So the one thing that’s really impressed me about this is that the involvement of the community, the representatives are meeting the disabled community and getting involved, and quite frankly we’ve had a lot of support from the local Burlington Parks and Recreation Departments. They’ve gotten involved.

That being said, it’s not without its struggles. And it really comes down to, as always, dollars and dollars and cents. And oftentimes you ask for a lot and you have to give a little bit and it’s going back and forth and we’ve seen that go back and forth through this like Annie said, a decade of working with it.

But I’ve been very impressed with the progress we’re making and, for example, getting the surfacing that we’re going to be getting for the park. Which won’t be whatever the mulch or wood that sits underneath there that is a problem, but a more solid setting. So people with mobility devices can get in there.

And then everything from the accessible slide to the accessible spinner which will ultimately get in there. So it has taken a while. Obviously we didn’t get everything we wanted, but it’s definitely a great start. And I think hopefully this will be a step in the right direction to other playgrounds getting built.

Julia: Thanks, Nate. That was great. And Annie. So the next question here is how did you get involved in the project? And I think you did mention a little bit about how you got involved, but would you like to go into that a little bit further?

Nate, I think the first time I met you was at a community charette, and then we got connected. And Annie, I met you at another community charette, which was a community input session. Do you want to speak a little bit about that? And then how we, and then how you got involved?

Nate: Yeah. So you and I did meet, it was at a community gathering meeting. And I was at the meeting, and I think I remember I had a lot of questions.

I was going in, it was informal, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is really cool’ the whole concept is good. And as someone who likes to participate in recreational activities, in my mind, I feel I’ve always felt like a lot of times when it comes to people with disabilities, and people think participating in physical activities, it’s like, ‘oh, well, it’s just exercise, it’s fun. It’s not important.’

And it’s so much more than that because of the psychological boost it gives to people. The integration, the ability to make friends. So it’s always been very important to me. So again, I met you and everybody else at the meeting at the initial meeting, and I just wanted to get involved.

I did a lot of my work on helping to make Burlington and Vermont more accessible to people with disabilities. And I started to get involved, started going to the meetings, trying to do it from my end. And from that end, it was a work endeavor. I always hoped to participate in it. I like to play too so getting in on that, but again, my involvement got so much more when we had our son Reece, who was born. And he’s now running around on playgrounds and a lot of the times it became, it hit me more from a personal end as a parent with a disability.

When we get to a playground and I can’t push my son on a swing, because I can’t get to the swing, it’s either blocked off or it’s in a mulched area where if I go my, and this actually happened the first time I tried it, I was going to the swing and I literally sink into the mulch and we needed to get three people to pull me out. Or get onto some kind of device to play with my son.

I’m usually sitting on the side, I’m the person sitting on the side in charge of maybe taking pictures and stuff like that. So this hit me a lot more whole on a personal level. So I would definitely say it’s become much more important to me on a personal level. So that’s my involvement.

But I’ve always been involved. I’m always intending to be involved, but it really hit a lot more home to me now on a personal level than it did.

Julia: Thanks, Nate. Annie, do you want to talk a little bit?

Annie: Sure. Yeah. So I think I got involved, as you both know, I’ve got twins, Posey and Otis, and at the time, I think they were about three, one of our favorite places to go was Oakledge. And back then the original playground that was built in probably the 1990s I think, and it did have a couple of bucket toddler swings that we could put both kids into. But at about three it was just becoming really challenging, really difficult to fit Otis in that swing.

I remember it was painful for him because his legs are so tight from cerebral palsy and it was just heartbreaking that it became something that we couldn’t do, and it just stopped being fun. I just, like, clearly remember this, sorry, moment of Posey not wanting to go to the playground either because Otis couldn’t be included. And it was also kind of dangerous.

Like we’d climb up holding him and balancing and trying to go down the slide. And he loved to slide. And that has become something, an aspect of Oakledge For All that I’m so excited about. The family slide, even though Otis is now ten. So around that time I saw, I became aware that, ‘oh my gosh, have we already outgrown the ability to go to playgrounds and my twins are still toddlers?’ Like that can’t be so. And I started to do some research are there other neighborhood playgrounds? And we heard there was a fabulous playground out in the new North End and it was like the most complex, challenging mulch surrounded, not at all an inclusive playground.

And it was brand new and I was just like, ‘man, how come there are all these new playgrounds that were not built in the 1990s that are so exclusive?’ And then I saw a flyer about it wasn’t Oakledge For All, it was when it was still called Keys. And I heard about the community meeting that was happening at the elementary school down the street.

And so I brought the kids and I tried to go, but I remember it was upstairs. And so I actually couldn’t get Otis inside. So my husband hung out outside with Otis and Posey and I went in and she was very patient as a three year old, and it was you and the designers talking about the plans for the playground.

And it was a fascinating, exciting conversation for me. I think I was one of the few family members that was there, somebody with a child with disabilities. And so it’s really interesting to hear the perspective from, like occupational therapists and physical therapists and medical professionals. But I was able to offer some, I think, real practical considerations and just reminding folks about the kind of, the value of being universally inclusive.

And there’s not going to be a ‘one size fits all’ array of play equipment, of seating, of all of these things. And it was just a really interesting conversation. And after that, you and I connected after the meeting and you said, ‘Would you like to get involved in this?’ And I was delighted and excited, too. Obviously, personal motivation for my kids and my family, but I also am a nonprofit professional with lots of fundraising experience.

So I thought it was an appropriate way that I could volunteer and apply some skills I had to helping Oakledge For All get organized and do some fundraising. So the rest is history, that was about seven years ago I think.

Julia: Yeah.

Annie: And I’m sorry I get weepy, but I can’t help but feel sad.

Julia: Annie, I wish I was there to give you a hug right now. I’ve witnessed your journey along the way and I wish that this could have happened sooner for your children.

Annie: Now, I think that, as I’ve learned, you pick a project and there are these legacy projects, right? So my twins are now ten.

They do still love playgrounds. We were at Oakledge over the weekend, but it’s for everyone else and it’s for the families who may not have the capacity to advocate for themselves or to know what’s not there. So this playground is for everybody.

Julia: Yeah. So this is the perfect segueway into describing a little bit more about your roles with the project. So Annie, you have been incredible. You have been our wordsmith. You’ve supported our grant writing over the years, you’ve supported us. I’ll let you speak to what you’ve done, but I would just say we couldn’t have done our marketing material without you.

Annie: Well, I don’t know about that. I think you’ve got a way with words, too. But I do have a lot of experience writing written communication and fundraising, and I think it becomes fundraising and requests for funding become a lot more compelling when you can share a personal story. So, like, the biggest contribution has probably been being really open and vulnerable about my own personal experience and that of my son to appeal to people who’d want to get involved and support us financially and otherwise. And the other ways that people are supporting not just Oakledge For All, but our community is that kind of that awareness of, ‘Oh my gosh, I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like to not be able to bring my kids to the playground or not be able to go to a playground myself.’

And so part of the journey has just been helping people understand about disability inclusion and how kind of, excluded our family has felt from many aspects of our of our local community. So that can really light a fire to write some grants and try to fundraise.

I helped create our website and create some kind of presence for Oakledge For All so that when we were talking about it, we could point people to the vision we all shared for this playground. And that was fun and exciting and then as life happens and my kids have gotten older and in school and busy and demands of my job, I’ve kind of flowed in and out in my capacity. But Oakledge For All has always been for like the past seven years, my favorite thing to do in my spare time.

Julia: Thank you, Annie. Thank you for all your time and involvement in the project. And Nate, I can think of several ways that you’ve been involved, but would you like to speak about some of your role?

Nate: Well, I think I’ve had a different role, I don’t think I’ve been as super-duper as Annie has been but I think I’ve definitely had certain portions of the role. I think my big involvement was I was able to access some of the resources that I have in the recreational community and also the disabled community to kind of help advise and consult on ways to kind of think outside the box to improve the accessibility of the park and to expand on what it might truly mean to be universal and accessible.

I think of contacts I have like with adaptive kayaking. I’m getting them involved and helping consult in certain areas to make sure that the beach area by Oakledge Park was more accessible. Also using my feedback, again I think when a lot of people think of accessible, they think of a cookie cutter approach to it and really kind of go beyond that.

I have had some references to fundraising resources that we had, most recently the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, kind of pointing the direction and which I helped make the connection with Sophie from Burlington Parks and Rec to apply and which got a $25,000 grant for some equipment. And really just providing perspective and also like Annie’s point is reaching out to people, letting them know about this project and also reaching out to people who I know who have disabilities or family member disabilities about this project and get involved.

And to really help them think. A lot of times there are people who are isolated and socially isolated and maybe they just stopped thinking about coming to places like a playground because they’re like, ‘why would I bother?’ But say ‘Oh, no, no, you should come check it out. You should come do this. It’s there.’ Or even get involved and say, okay, you have a voice, it needs to be heard. Help, speak up about that. So a lot of this is help getting people involved, advocating.

And like Annie, this is one of my favorite projects to be involved in. You get involved in a lot of stuff at work to help advocate for but this is definitely something that you have a personal affinity for and this is definitely one of them.

Julia: Yes. Oakledge For All, go team! It’s been amazing working with both of you.

And now also thinking about if people want to get started on their own projects, looking back ten years, the question here is how did this project unfold? What happened first? I’m happy to speak to some of the initial things that we did to get it started, but I think there’s a lot more that happened along the way that you both participated in.

Originally, this was a leadership goal that I developed through Vermont ILEHP, Interdisciplinary Leadership Education for Health Professionals, say that ten times, and it was a project that I started as a special educator because I wanted to see my students be able to access the community playgrounds alongside their peers. I wanted to see them play and have the same joy as their peers in their community spaces.

And so we got a Ben and Jerry’s Community Grant, and we found a playground designer and Rusty Keeler from Ithaca, and he helped us design this initial concept of what the playground was going to look like together with the first group of volunteers that we created. We pitched the idea to the Burlington Parks and Recreation, and they were like, ‘No, I don’t think so yet. I don’t think that’s our priority quite yet.’

And so we pitched it again and they said, ‘okay, okay, we found some champions on the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department, and we found some people who are willing to stand behind this mission and found it valuable.’ And also, we had some people speak to the Parks Commission who had lived experiences and said, ‘my child can’t access the space like your child and this is really important.’ And I think it helped.

Telling their stories helped motivate the Parks Commission to realize that this is something they hadn’t thought about before and it was important. And then the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department slowly started working with us and we slowly got this project started. And I think the most important piece was soliciting endorsements and building community.

So we would go to organizations like the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports. We would go to we went to the Vermont Children’s Hospital, we went to the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion at UVM, and we said, ‘Can you teach us what’s important? Who should we connect with? Who are some people who would want to get involved in this project?’

And from there we started doing the community input sessions where I met you, Nate and where I met you, Annie. As the Burlington Parks and Recreation got a little bit of money to hire their own design firm to create a concept design and to start asking for community input. And that’s when we had many community input sessions. And yeah, what happened from there?

Annie: I mean one thing that comes to mind when you explain your early involvement is, well, a huge thank you because it’s, I feel like this project because it has spanned so much time, has really needed a leader. And I think that it’s also amazing that you’ve been able to stick with it and been so committed. And I know that you do have lived experience with disability through your role as an educator, but not necessarily personally with your family.

And so that takes just an enormous amount of just love and compassion for justice and inclusion. And I think that it was important because at times I felt frustrated in other situations, like when I’m trying to get the playground improved at our kids school and they’re like, ‘oh, yeah, if that’s a project you want, you can do it. You can fundraise for it.’

And I get really hurt and disappointed by the expectation that those who are the most marginalized and left out are left to fix it. When we, speaking personally, I have a son who needs assistance and care with everything he does. And I don’t always have the capacity and time to be as involved as I’d like to with certain things.

And so anyway, it’s really helpful to have people involved themselves, not because they’re being directly impacted or left out, but because you know it’s the right thing to do. And so having a kind of a coalition of people supporting this project has been really essential. And I think that it’s not just the Parks and Rec or the clinicians, the people who work with people with disabilities or kind of the ally groups, but that we are involving people with lived experience with disability to really offer input and be the, I can’t think of the right boat analogy, but like setting the direction of this.

And also being kind of like the check and balances when some decisions were being made that we didn’t agree with or coming down to cost, we had to really fight and persist and advocate and say, well, why put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a mediocre playground? We need to raise the bar around what is a truly inclusive experience. And around the notion of cost, some decisions were made.

The universal design is very costly, we know that. But you can also accomplish, you don’t need to have $1,000,000 playground every time. I don’t want community members to think, ‘gosh, this is impossible because we will never have the capacity to raise that kind of funding.’ I think it’s more about the process, changing the framework and increasing awareness at the municipal level so that whatever entity, if there’s a Parks and Rec department or a town is investing in the playground, that they have the awareness of how do we make this as inclusive as possible and how do we use the resources we have to accomplish that.

And getting away from just ADA compliance, as Nate suggested. So getting really creative about whatever we do, it’s got to be inclusive for everyone. And I think we were able to do that back and forth with Burlington Parks and Rec but there were times where they were pitched us things that were clearly not going to check all of the boxes for us and we had to say ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ That is not going to be what we’re trying to achieve here. And anyway, so, yes, that kind of constant continuum of having community input, which it can be really tiresome and exhausting and I think there are times where I was ready to check out if it weren’t for you, Julia so thank you.

Julia: Well, vice versa Annie. I mean, I had three children through this through the past eight years. There have been times where I have been very stretched thin working full time and being a full-time mom of three children. *laughs*

And I think our team pushed me through. The fact that we had our community and you also really helped motivate me at times.

And I think it takes a team. You can’t do it alone and it takes it takes a team. And also, I think about, we’ve had a variety of different volunteers who have been able to come in and out over time, people who have had the capacity to help for a couple of years, and then they step away and someone else comes in but I think at the at the core, we’ve had our mission, we’ve had our vision.

We’ve been able to keep going, keep chugging along. And that’s been really helpful. Yeah. And I think to just add to that, Annie, I also think we have learned a lot. I myself have learned a lot along the way about what is universal design and what does a universally accessible playground look like?

We’ve had playground designers come, I remember some playground equipment folks pitched an idea for a piece of equipment that they said would help children ‘affect the play of others.’ I was thinking, ‘What? So they push something and then someone else has fun? No, that’s not universal design.’ So we’ve been very thoughtful about each piece of equipment being hopefully as accessible as possible, in theory. So hopefully in practice it will be just as fun.

Annie: Yeah, I think they said simulate fun, right? Like it could be on the side, kind of simulating the fun that all your friends are having on the actual play structure. It was awful, anyway.

Julia: I know. So Nate, do you want to add anything to how the project unfolded along the way?

Nate: I think Annie covered a lot of that. I do want to say thanks to you also, I was not aware of the struggles early on, which I do look at the buy-in now from a lot of the places. And I do know like, even with the Burlington Parks and Rec, even though a lot times it does come to dollars and cents sometimes, it’s something they’ve bought into and are committed to helping.

So when you’re telling us initially they said no thanks, the advocacy on your part has been incredible. My early involvement thinking about what you’re talking about was really what you’re talking about. It was mainly us having meetings on park design, budget, how to raise funds, giving proposed designs of the park, what could go in? Okay, what can’t we pay for? What can we scale back? What do we keep?

And I keep going back to the all accessible spinner, which you know, which people in wheelchairs and mobility devices can’t get into. That was a big part that we wanted and I remember someone from design said ‘Well, let’s get rid of that’ and we’re like ‘Well, no.’ That’s very important to us because that’s a big integrated design that will let children with a mobility disability or people use those spinners. I remember us advocating and to Annie’s point, really just the involvement of the community of people who have life experiences, it’s really getting that and getting the feedback from people like that.

And then just going back to all the times we thought we were making progress and then we got hit by this pesky pandemic in 2020 that really put a halt to a lot of things. A lot of halt in funding and just waiting for certain funds to come that were there, then weren’t there and waiting for approval of it all and just still staying the course of working on it. Those would be my most memories of us.

It was just looking over the schematics, talking feedback, being told one thing, pushing back for another thing and reaching something that really, while not super perfect, got everything you want, is definitely an improvement and with the idea that we could build upon it at a later point of time. So those are really my admissions of it. It really just goes back and forth, really focusing on fundraising and designing a park that is going to be truly universally accessible and also that works for everyone.

Julia: And so what do we think of the outcome so far? Have we noticed any reactions in the community? It’s not quite, we should say phase two is not quite done yet but the hope is that it will be done by the end of the summer.

We’re waiting on a part for the large family slide, but phase one was opened in 2018 and that was the swing section. And now our next section will be the spinner, as Nate said, and a large family slide. So what have we noticed? What do we think about the outcome so far?

Annie: Well, I mean, I’ve noticed my family goes to Oakledge all the time and just the swing area, which, I wish had more swings. That can be phase three!. Because it is so popular. Right. And they are swings that everyone can use. So I’ve had a lot of people from around the community, at our local school, just out and about, say like, ‘oh my gosh, that playground is beautiful. Congratulations.’

I’m like, ‘Oh, that is just a little preview of what’s to come.’

I mean, they were just talking about the swing area. So I think that is definitely working to raise awareness and have that ‘aha’ moment of like, ‘Oh, this is what inclusive, intentionally well-designed play spaces can look like.’ And the joy that comes from seeing all members of our community being able to access them.

And so I think people will be really excited and odd when they see the grand finale of phase two come to fruition. And I also think that it’s not just the physical manifestation of Oakledge For All that’s what we should celebrating, it’s the systemic change that we’ve fostered over the past decade. And where we’ve come, as, you know, our municipal partners saying, ‘no, this isn’t a priority for us,’ which we heard for the first few years I was involved, to now even as recent as last fall, another playground went up in Burlington in record time that was not even ADA compliant.

And that to me was like, ‘gosh, have we not made any progress?’ Like, how can this happen? And I think that as devastating as that was and still is, it’s another neighborhood playground, it did create this like sea change of like, ‘oh my gosh, like we can’t keep building playgrounds this way.’

And why are we going to keep building playgrounds that leave members of our community out? And it doesn’t just benefit the people who are left out, we all benefit when we can connect and foster friendships. None of my kids friends want Otis to be left out from the play. And this magical thing happens when people connect and form friendships.

And so anyway, I think that that kind of hopefully systemic change of kind of shifting how we view playgrounds and investments in our resources that now our local community will do a more thoughtful job.

Julia: Mm hmm.

Nate: Yeah. So I’m really excited, I just can’t wait. And I totally get why there may be delays there’s nothing you can control in terms of the fabrication and making of it.

But knowing that it’s coming just really gets me excited. It’s like when, when, when? But already after phase one, I can also tell you that swings that were in downtown Burlington, that’s the place we go so my son can go around and I can literally this way get to the swings or either go on the one swing. I’m able to get in on it. It’s fantastic.

I do know that community partners I have including my own organization. They’re like, ‘When is this park going to open? We want to have some kind of event there. We really want to hold something there to celebrate this and invite community members.’ And other groups I’m involved with are really asking about it.

And even with VCIL, the organization I work for, it sometimes gets inquiries from people from out of state coming into the Burlington area saying ‘what are some things to do?’ And I do mention the Oakledge Park. This is coming, I don’t know if it’s going to be here when you get here, but it’s something to check out.

And it’s not just the playground itself. I do think the overall area is nice. I mentioned this already, there’s already work being done to the beach area which will allow people in mobility devices to get down to the beach. There’s a nice ramp that we’re working on, mats that will allow people to get on.

I know that they’re redoing the bathrooms so that they’re accessible and I think even have some adult changing tables, which is something that is really very hard to find. So I think just overall, it’s a really big push. And I will say I think what it has done also, is it has put for playgrounds the idea that we should really check about accessibility.

I do serve as chair of the Burlington Advisory Committee on Accessibility and I do find that more and more meetings, Burlington Parks and Rec is coming to us saying ‘we’re planning some things, we would like the feedback of your committee on how to make sure they’re accessible.’ And I know that’s all have to do with playgrounds and certain parks and making sure.

So I do think what it has done, it has planted a seed in the municipal entities that we need feedback. We need to get feedback from community members to make sure this is not just accessible or ADA compliant, but beyond that. And again, it’s still a work in progress. I’m sure we all know some projects that have been built that really could have use the feedback from the members of the disabled community. But I think it’s a good start and I do think that this has helped plant the seed for some of the other projects.

Julia: Great. And so the next question is, do either of you have a background in accessibility of the built environment or civic action? And can you speak a little bit about that?

Nate: Well that’s my job, really. *laughs*

I’m an advocate, so I’m involved in a lot. I’m now in more of a management role so I supervise the PAC’s, that’s what we call the Peer Advocate Coordinators. So what we do and I still do, is a lot of one-on-one advocacy for people with disabilities.

So somebody with a disability, they might be trying to find adaptive equipment or a ramp to get in and we all help them get the resources to be built. Or they’re trying to find a job and maybe want to know about the laws regarding employment disability and maintaining their benefits, we help people understand that. A lot of it is with accessibility, making sure, they understand.

I am trained in understanding the laws of the ADA so I have a pretty comprehensive understanding of how the Americans with Disabilities works. Definitely know of its benefits and drawbacks. So I do a lot of work with systems advocacy, meeting with municipalities and businesses, really advocating them to make themselves accessible and not only the law requirement but the benefits of inclusiveness.

And I also do trainings. We do ADA 101 trainings, various trainings on different aspects. So it’s really my job to do that. So it’s also something I have a personal passion for. Obviously, for somebody with a disability who has been physically disabled since I was a young teenager, it’s something that my parents really ingrained in me early on.

Like, ‘Know your rights, know your rights, advocate for yourself.’ But they helped me and it’s something I want to pass on to everyone else because progress does not get made without advocacy. And one thing I like to tell people in the disabled community is all the time people are making decisions that are going affect your life and they may not be wanting your feedback.

So they are going to make decisions that affect you and the only way you can do that is to get involved. And that is something I think is very important to try to push for.

Annie: I don’t have Nate’s technical expertise at all,  but I have the practical expertise of being a mom of a child who uses a wheelchair.

And so I have that hands on experience, and then I do have a lot of experience in civic engagement. I’ve been in the role as an executive director of a current nonprofit for about 15 years and involved in nonprofit work for many years prior to that. So my entire kind of adult life has been devoted to working for organizations that work to create social change and have social change missions.

And then I do have a long history of just volunteerism and kind of getting involved in different efforts that are near and dear to my heart or that can benefit from my time and expertise. And then this was a clear, obvious choice for our family. So definitely personal benefit there, too.

Julia: Thanks. And so the next question is what was the most satisfying part of this project or what has it been so far?

Nate: I think for me, even though it had its delays, was when they actually started breaking ground on building this new part of the playground and actually going down and seeing it, seeing the construction vehicles. Now, granted, it was, I think in the so they had to pause for the winter. But actually seeing all the vehicles really breaking ground, it’s like, ‘oh, wow, this is actually happening.’

And I think that was for me, the most satisfying from my end. Now it has been delayed unfortunately, because they’re still having to fabricate some of the parts and that’s been delayed. But knowing that this is actually happening for me was really like, ‘oh, wow, this is really satisfying.’ And that will probably be trumped by actually when it’s done and seeing it, but knowing that all the advocacy, all the fundraising had come to something being built and ground being broken for me was very satisfying.

Annie: That’s a hard question. The simplest answer for me is the first time we went as a family for the ribbon cutting of the swing area and seeing my kids, Posey and Otis swing together. That was probably it. But I think also kind of seeing our partners at the city step up into a really like authentic partnership role has also been great because I think like we’ve petered out and there’s been delays that have been exhausting and kind of incomprehensible like why is this playground still not built?

And they stuck with it, too. They have been persistent advocates because they’ve probably had pressure from leadership outside of their department to maybe skip over things or reprioritize things and they have stuck with it. And they have added in things back that maybe got cut previously, and they have I think, done a better job than in the very early days at listening. And so I’m appreciative that we’ve had that.

Julia: Yeah, I agree. I think one of the most satisfying parts of this whole process has been that we have so many champions now that I think are willing to listen and willing to change and also make other playgrounds more accessible in the future in Burlington. I think , I just love going and sneaking by Oakledge and just seeing people accessing, just even the swings for now.

It just brings me a lot of joy. And to know that it’s beyond us now. It will be the communities and it will be for people who are visiting, it will be for everyone. And it will be a place where friendships can be built. So yeah.

And so the next question is around the project itself and whether or not it has changed your view of disability or accessibility. Has this project changed your views at all? It certainly has mine and it’s changed mine and I could speak to that later. But I’m curious if it’s changed your view of disability or accessibility along the way?

Nate: Well first of all, I didn’t know there were so many cool things out there for adaptive equipment. So I looked at some and an adaptive spinner, how cool is that? Somebody can get a wheelchair on there. Or the adaptive slide. The fact that they are out there is pretty cool. So I think there seems to be an encouraging and discouraging part of it.

The encouraging thing is that there’s all these great things out there. I think the disconcerting things is just how hard it is to attain them. And just how unwell know or something that is specialized for a group individuals. And when you think of people with disabilities, it’s a much larger group than people would envision, and also it is a group that anybody at any point could join.

So you think a disabled community and all of them, and it’s something where as the population ages people may be part of, but how difficult it is to find this adaptive equipment and also how expensive it is. And really the only way to bring that down is to normalize it, to push it, and making sure it’s more widely distributed.

So I definitely think that the good and the bad part is, there’s great items out there. There’s people who have put thought into this. It’s just very difficult to obtain. I think for me, and this is something I’ve always known, is just really changing the attitude of things when it comes to accessibility. And it’s still definitely out there.

I think it has changed for the better. I definitely think about when I was young with a disability, interacting with people the way they treated the disability as now, being older, dealing with the next generation. I definitely see a difference in the attitudes. But it’s still just how, a lot of times making accommodations or integrating people with disabilities is still an afterthought. Or there is a ‘they,’ you know? ‘What will we have to do for them now?’ And it should be more like an us.

Which I’ve known about, I grew up in that, but it definitely brought forth just looking at people saying, ‘well why would we do that? Why would we want to include this?’ We have this little swing, this little bucket swing on the side. Shouldn’t that be enough? That is still something that’s very discouraging but I do see a shift in the younger generation. It’s change I find very encouraging.

Again, I think it’s slowly, at an iceberg rate, changing. I definitely would like to speed it up. But there are some very cool things out there that help inclusiveness, it’s just really making sure they’re brought to the forefront and more integrated. So, I don’t know if that exactly answered the question but that is some of my thoughts.

Julia: Thank you. Yeah. And how about you, Annie? Has this project changed your view of disability or accessibility?

Annie: Oh, gosh, yeah. In many ways, and I think similar to Nate’s perspective, it’s like in some ways reinforced my fear that there’s just so much more work to do and just how we continue to as a community make these huge public investments and spaces that continue to be exclusive. Not just like physically inaccessible, but if there’s the thought of including a ramp once you get inside, they’re not designed for really thoughtful, intentional, inclusive participation and engagement.

Thinking about Burlington High School underway, that’s going to be a brand new, beautiful building that’s signature entryway symbol when you get into the building, is a giant staircase. And so the fact that designers, decision makers are still not thinking about members of the community with disabilities is really hard. So yes, I think Oakledge For All is a symbol of progress, but all around us there’s still so much more work to do.

And yeah, fundamentally it just comes down to like shifting and I’m really sick of the narrative that it costs too much. And like when I think about building any sort of building, it’s like well you know, windows cost money and they continue to rise in cost, putting windows in structures, but we don’t build structures without windows and doors.

And so kind of thinking about making our physical spaces, the infrastructure more inclusive is something that as a community we can throw money at that problem. You throw money at that problem and you can hopefully then foster the shifts in attitude and in people’s hearts and awareness and minds. But if we still can’t get in the door, people with disabilities, then we can’t participate and be part of that cultural shift and social change that needs to happen.

And so, yeah, I think attitudes are shifting, but it sometimes feels like incomprehensible how much more there is to do in my son’s young life so far.

Annie: But I’m optimistic that there’s more people keeping at it, you know?

Julia: Well, Annie, you made me think of two examples of how I’ve learned through this project.

One is that I remember you would tell me that when you would go to Portland, Maine every playground had an element that your son could access. And it was just part of their paradigm, it was part of their built environment it sounded like. I don’t know if you can speak to that a little bit, but it got me –

You know, we have such a great, strong relationship now with the Burlington Parks and Recreation and Waterfront and we’re really encouraging them to build into their policy, into their mission and vision. The idea that in the future, every playground will think about universal design. That was one thing that I learned along the way, is it’s just not part of the paradigm always.

Vermont is way behind. I would travel to California and I would see these playgrounds that are amazing and take back some of the ideas. And it was just part of what they do.

Annie: Yeah.

Julia: So often.

Annie: Here it is an afterthought or it’s checking the box on what’s legally required, you know?

Julia: Mm hmm. And I think about a visual that we’ve used over the years that I think has been really effective. It was designed by Michael Giangreco who was a professor at UVM and connected to CDCI and it told the story, it was a true story, in Vermont of a child who was waiting for the ramp to be shoveled and the custodian who was shoveling the stairs said, ‘when I’m done shoveling the stairs, I can get to the ramp.’

But the student said, ‘But if you shovel the ramp, then we can all get into the school together.’ And I would argue that why not just build ramps? I mean, it’s probably more cost effective anyway than stairs. *laughs*

If you build a ramp you have one universally accessible way to enter a space, for example.

Annie: I reference that all the time, that image, yeah.

Julia: Yeah. It’s definitely one of the things I’ve learned along the way, and it’s been a humbling experience for me too. I’ve made some assumptions that I think were harmful along the way too. And I’ve learned, Annie you’ve taught me and Nate, and I think it’s just really important to listen to people who have lived experiences and to just yeah, just listen as much as possible.

Annie: I think I’ve learned that, too, because I know that my lived experience is very different from somebody else with a disability. And that disability affects every individual so differently. And that’s been one of the challenging pieces about creating a universally inclusive playground. Because what works for my kiddo with a wheelchair may not work for somebody else. Right? And so how do have the most equipment with the most likelihood that everyone can participate has been a work in progress. But I feel like we’ve nailed it with Oakledge For all.

Julia: Yeah. And so just wrapping it up, we’ve got a couple more questions and then I think what is, if you could each give one piece of advice to other people who would like to see their own playgrounds become more accessible, what is that one piece of advice that you would give them?

Nate: I mean, I guess my own piece of advice is don’t be afraid to speak up, get involved very early. Go to find out whoever is building it, whether it be the local Parks and Rec community, the school, and provide your feedback, attend meetings, don’t take no for an answer. Make sure people see the benefits of it.

One thing I didn’t mention is yes, providing universal accessible is more expensive, but it may also be more expensive in the short term. So up front it might be cost, but in the long run, it actually might mean not spending as much over time. Again, I think of surfacing with mulch versus a more galvanized rubber. Which mulch might be effective you know, it might be less expensive to put it down, but you really have to maintain it and take care of it where the more rubber surfaces are maybe a little bit more sturdier to last over the long run, but really try to see the benefits and try to get as much people involved as the community.

And again, it’s not easy. All three of us are very busy people. We have a lot going on, but it won’t be done unless people speak up. So do your research, find out what’s accessible and make your voice heard. And that’s the only way that you can really get involved. And seek the feedback of other projects that have been made.

So look around and see what’s been done and seek that feedback. That’s what I would say, yeah.

Annie: Yeah, I mean, I’d echo that and I think I’d probably have different advice dePending on who’s taking the lead and initiating the work. I think if it’s a municipality or a like a school district or some kind of entity like that that’s wanting to do that, I would just encourage that time for authentic, inclusive participation by those who are currently left out and not able to access playgrounds. And really taking the time to do that and not just listening to a vendor tell you, ‘Oh, yes, this is it. This is the equipment you need and your problem is solved.’

And then if it’s somebody like me that’s wanting to create that realizes there’s no place for their kid to play, I think it’s like being really honest and persistent and being direct. I mean, I had to have some really difficult conversations with people I know and respect through my professional role in the city about, why are we doing this as a city? Why are we continuing to invest in these exclusive places?

And kind of give some harsh feedback that was difficult and emotional to share. But you have to do it and you have to keep advocating and I think be willing to be vulnerable and also brave, because if you don’t speak out, it’s clear that it won’t be a priority. Until we create that systemic change where it is a priority and it’s just we have a whole new rubric for how we create play spaces in our society.

But yeah, so just be a fierce advocate. And if that isn’t your strength or something you like to do, recruit a friend who will help you.

Julia: Thanks. And so the last the last question is what is one word that you each use to describe the project?

Nate: One Word? Persistence. *laughs*. I guess it’s definitely one of persistence. I mean, we’re going on what? Eight years I think? I don’t know how long eight, nine years? I mean, so it’s not letting go of the proverbial rope, making sure it doesn’t escape, making sure you keep on pushing. It is one of just constantly working at it and pushing and advocating. So in the end, maybe not getting everything you want but really making sure you have something that’s inclusive, making sure you have the feedback of those who are being impacted and who are most affected by the park are heard.

And it’s going to be ongoing. Like I said, even after this will be done, it’s going to be okay, it’s done, it’s great, what can we do to add on to it? Oh, there’s a playground being built over there. Okay, let’s see what we could do to make sure about that.

It’s just staying on top of it, being persistent in the future and to continue to go after it. So I’d say persistence. That’s the first word that comes to my mind.

Annie: The word that came to my mind is love. I think for many reasons, I think just fundamentally, when we create opportunities for friendship and connection and love, we’re creating a stronger community and everyone benefits from that.

And it’s been a labor of love, this project. But yeah, it just comes back to, yeah, I think that this is going to be a symbol of friendship in our community. And I know I see firsthand how, when my son is authentically included and able to participate, the profound joy that is on everyone’s faces, not just the young people in the room, but everybody gets to celebrate this friendship. And that to me, seems like the most important thing to come from this.

Julia: Annie you said it perfectly, and Nate. And I will add joy, which I think Annie said. But it makes me think about one of our initial members who offered a lot of advice along the way, who is Deborah Lisi-Baker. Who was one of my professors who inspired me to take on this project. And Deborah — and I’ll quote — she said,

‘This park promises a place where all people can play together and be together. Universal or inclusive design brings us all together.’

And isn’t that what design should be about? Making community possible? And it’s about joy, right? It’s about coming together. So, thank you both for being here today and telling your story and telling our story of Oakledge For All.

Annie: Yeah. Thank you, Julia. It’s very much your story so I’m glad that you chimed in.

Nate: Yeah, yeah. Thank you.



Green Mountain Disability Stories is the monthly podcast of the UVM Center on Disability and Community Inclusion (CDCI). Each episode features a conversation on some aspect of disability, by and with people with disabilities and their families and advocates. The views of guests on the podcast do not necessarily reflect those of the CDCI.

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