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Tips to Create a Wheelchair Accessible Playground

Source: U.S. Access Board Summary of Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas

Numbers of
elevated play
Minimum number of
ground-level play com-
ponents required to be
on accessible route
Minimum number of
different types of
ground-level play com-
ponents required to be
on accessible route
1 Not applicable Not applicable
2 to 4 1 1
5 to 7 2 2
8 to 10 3 3
11 to 13 4 3
14 to 16 5 3
17 to 19 6 3
20 to 22 7 4
23 to 25 8 4
More than 25 8 plus 1 for each additional 3 over 25,
of fraction thereof

In 2010, the U.S Department of Justice revised the American Disabilities Act with updated standards for making facilities handicap accessible. This had a transformative impact on the design and construction of many types of new installations around the country. Playgrounds are particularly affected by these regulations, which had a profound effect on the industry. While it is not legally mandatory, most modern commercial playgrounds are at least compliant, and most schools and other organizations specify that their play areas must follow these rules.

It can be difficult to build a playground around the needs of handicapped children, since so many common playground activities involve climbing, swinging, sliding, and other physical activities. However, it is still very important to make a safe and enjoyable play area where these children can have fun and socialize with other kids. This guide will outline when and how to implement these ADA regulations in the construction of your playground.

First, it’s important to know what features these rules apply to. The Sections of the ADA that cover play areas do not include areas built for children below two years of age, or ‘amusement attractions’ like the powered rides you would find at a state fair or amusement park. If a facility has multiple play areas, whether or not they are intended for children of different age groups, all of them must follow the ADA standards. Play structures that are modified should include these requirements in their modification plans, and play areas constructed in phases should remain compliant with the rules after each successive addition. However, this only applies if the structure itself is being modified. If the ground surface is being changed, or some components are simply being relocated, the rest of the structure does not have to be brought up to code (although it’s still a good idea).

There is a difference between ‘ADA compliant’ and ‘fully accessible’. Compliant play structures are generally less accessible, but also much less expensive. Compliant structures are made with the physically disabled in mind, while fully accessible structures are made specifically for them. The information in this guide deals primarily with ADA compliancy. 

The core of the ADA requirements are focused on how many components of the play structure are accessible. A ‘component’ is essentially any interactive feature of the structure that kids play with. This includes slides, climbers, activity panels, and even smaller features such as rain wheels or drums. For each inaccessible feature, a certain number must be accessible.

The accessible components should also be “integrated” into the structure, and not centralized in one area. The whole point of building a play structure that complies with ADA standards is to create an environment where children with physical disabilities are able to play and socialize with their peers without feeling excluded.  Creating a distinct and solitary ‘handicapped area’ would completely defeat the purpose.

A child with physical disabilities does not necessarily have to be able to use a component to its full extent for that component to be deemed accessible. For example, a sandbox is considered accessible as long as there is an accessible route to its border. In this scenario, the child would still be able to socialize and interact with the other children using the sandbox, although is still not as accessible as it would be if a usable transfer system was provided.

The language of the ADA makes a distinction between “elevated” and “ground level” play components. Naturally, ground level components are easier for children with physical disabilities to reach and use. Roughly 25% of a play structure’s components must be on the ground level for it to be ADA compliant, and a fully accessible structure must have closer to 50%. The table on this page shows exactly how many ground-level components are needed to balance out the elevated ones. In addition to maintaining this ratio, there are also rules requiring larger play structures to feature ground level components of different types. This is largely to prevent people from putting a bunch of similar and cheap components on the base of an otherwise inaccessible structure and calling it a day.

‘Types’ of components is a little bit hard to define, since there are so many different playground components available. The language of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design suggests that the type of component is determined by the “experience provided”, or how a child interacts with it. For example, a component that involves climbing would be a different type of component than one that involves spinning.

The accessibility of ground level components is of course contingent on the accessibility of the ground. Some types of common playground surfacing, such as large wood chips, are hard for wheelchairs to cross. Other varieties, including most rubber surfaces, are much easier.

Of course, there are ways to make the elevated components accessible as well. Usually, this is done using a ramp. However, playground ramps must have a slope no greater than 1:12. That is to say, a ramp that goes up one foot must be at least 12 feet long. The Standards guide even suggests that they should be less steep than this when possible. Ramps this long are often hard to plan around, but are important for play areas that are striving for full accessibility. Platform lifts another option, but they must be independently operable, which can be a liability if they are not properly supervised. Transfer stations are also a good step, but by themselves they do not make elevated components qualify as accessible, since wheelchair-users still cannot climb the stairs. For these reasons, it usually costs significantly more to build or upgrade a play area to be fully accessible than it does to simply make it ADA compliant by outfitting it with accessible features such as wheel-through climbers, ground level activity panels, and wheelchair accessible swings.


Learn more about the author: Parker Jones