The week before Christmas, I came across an article from Today’s Parent listing the top 12 indoor playgrounds in Toronto. I was like, cool! I checked out each one to see if any were close to my home. I noticed that most sites had a lengthy “Rules” section. I assumed this was going to be standard stuff, like “don’t let your kid be a jerk!” or “please don’t come into the building with fireworks or active norovirus!”
There was one rule that appeared on each and every site:
WE ARE A NO-SHOE ZONE! SHOES ARE ABSOLUTELY PROHIBITED AND THE WEARING OF SHOES IS PUNISHABLE BY NOT HAVING ANY FUN FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! SOCKS AND BARE FEET ONLY, NO EXCEPTIONS, EVER, DOUBLE STAMP IT, NO ERASIES!
(alright, alright, so I might be embellishing a bit here, but the tone pertaining to this ‘socks-only’ rule was always the same: They were serious about not letting you in unless the shoes came off).
What’s the big freaking deal? Just take off your shoes like a polite human being and have some fun and stop complaining, right?
Well, no. I mean, yes. It is a big freaking deal. The no-shoes rule is an exclusive one. It assumes, quite incorrectly, that every child is able to follow this rule. That each and every child who visits their facility is capable of zipping off their runners to careen down the dinosaur-tail slide on their own. This is a false assumption.
My son has been wearing AFOs (ankle-foot-orthotics, or leg braces) since he was 13 months old. He requires extra-wide runners in order to fit over the added bulk of the plastic. He can’t walk on his own, but can fly around in his walker like Yoshi and might probably definitely school your kid in wheelchair basketball. Taking off his shoes and AFOs isn’t an option; they are a part of him. They are a medical device, and are a necessity to protect and support his legs, feet, and ankles.
Would the same rules be acceptable in the adult world? If I owned a restaurant with brand spanking new Brazilian hardwood floors, and I was TERRIFIED of customers ruining my brand spanking new Brazilian hardwood floors, would it be okay to just post a sign prohibiting shoes? Why not cover all my bases and prohibit canes, scooters, strollers and walkers? Why not really protect my investment and require everyone to wear slippers (provided free – of course – I’m no monster) upon entering the establishment?
I decided to do what any rational mom of a disabled kid might do: Calmly send a polite email to each of the facilities listed in the article.
Hello! I was just wondering what your policy was with allowing children with disabilities to use your playground. My son wears leg/foot braces and also requires a custom orthotic shoe over these. Do you typically make exceptions in these situations?
Here’s my breakdown of the results:
- Only 8 out of 12 places actually responded to my email (and please please please go ahead and try to convince me that the majority of able-bodied people, even those who work with children, actually care about disability rights. Please, be my guest!)
- The vast majority – 6 out of 8 – were all like, absolutely, no problem! Do whatever you have to do, as long as he can enjoy the fun! Whatever you need. One place even included the following message, which I thought was great: We are an inclusive Indoor Playground! We welcome all children and adults with disabilities and exceptionalities.
- Another place was like, eh maybe. Come in and we’ll see. In other words, be prepared to drive all the way out here so that we can decide whether or not you can actually enter. My experience as a consumer has led me to the realization that ‘maybe’ means “be prepared for disappointment because we can’t promise anything.”
The final place sent me the following response:
And then a couple seconds later I received this additional gem:
Also, it would be our pleasure to have your child play at no charge.
I don’t even know where to start. Should I begin with the use of the word ‘challenged’ or the fact that she offered my son, the poor disabled boy, free admission? How about the part where she effectively denies the use of a medical device in her establishment?
I responded immediately, apologizing profusely for not making his medical needs clear. I emphasized the fact that the braces can’t and won’t come off.
She responded with questions about the nature of the plastic, whether it would scratch or cut the surface of the playground (not sure, as I’m not quite finished my 10 000 hours of plastic interaction studies) and then concluded with “we can try and see what happens.”
Overall, I’m happy that the majority of responses were positive. But it isn’t good enough. I’m tired of encountering adults who engage closely with children in a professional context, who have absolutely no idea what to do with a child with disabilities. This person didn’t even know the right language to use when referring to my son.
Here’s the thing: it’s not my job to educate absolutely everyone in the world. Or anyone in the world. I’m sick of having to be the polite, diplomatic, and patient mother. The quintessential mother-of-a-disabled-kid mother. I’m tired of being ignored, of receiving a response from only 67% of these facilities, including the one described above. Even a neutral response like “maybe” feels like a small kick in the stomach. And if a place has a truly inclusive policy towards what can and can’t be worn on their equipment, why the heck isn’t this information on their website?
If you work with children, and they are different, and they have unique needs and maybe those needs just go against the grain of everything you’ve ever heard about children, do one thing: Say yes. Make them feel included. If you have created barriers in your work, find a way to remove them. Take them down. Who else is going to do it?
Have a fun day.