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The Role of Ableism When an All-Abilties Park is Vandalized

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When you’re a kid, you need places just for you. Like ball pits: ball pits are for kids. When you’re a kid and you’re also disabled, you need places to play that are made just for kids like you. In Warwick, Rhode Island, there’s a park for kids of all abilities to learn and grow, a place where there are wheelchair swings and flat, wheelchair-navigable grounds. It’s called the imPOSSIBLE Dream, and it offered a place for kids of all physical and mental (dis)abilities to play. That is, until it was vandalized. Park benches were smashed, doors knocked in and swing sets destroyed.

These vandals may have been ignorant of what the park stands for. But when you see the hate and derision that disabled people, particularly children, face, it becomes more believable that this park could have been targeted for what it is. The group Autism Speaks has called autistic children unworthy burdens, and recently people mocked those who only need wheelchairs intermittently. Hate crimes against those with disabilities are nothing new. Disabled children are often abused, and sometimes even murdered, by their own guardians and caregivers.

Playground, imPOSSIBLE Drean

(image via the imPOSSIBLE Dream)

It’s not unusual to see backlash against marginalized groups, even if the individuals suffering are children. Queer children are often victims of bullying, and children of color are often targeted in schools by administration, suffering penalties more often than their white counterparts.

But while disabled children get targeted for bullying because of their disabilities, a common misconception is that ableism simply doesn’t exist. Disabled people got the Americans with Disabilities Act to make sure they never experience barriers to access, and who would be mean to a disabled person anyways? Surely any ills a disabled person faces are the result of ignorance, not malice, right?

I spoke with Diane Florio Penza, Executive Director of the imPOSSIBLE Dream. She believes the park was vandalized randomly, but if it was targeted specifically for catering to those of all ability levels, then to her, that would be a hate crime, plain and simple. The vandals shot and uploaded video of themselves destroying the park, video which I neither looked for not would want to find. A few days later, the vandals were caught, arrested and released to their parents.

playground, imPOSSIBLE Dream

(image via the imPOSSIBLE Dream)

The park is, in fact, a real need of disabled children. For example, children in wheelchairs can’t navigate the wood-chip surfaces that many playgrounds are covered with, and those without muscle control need swings that allow them to play safely. Without places like the imPOSSIBLE Dream, the lives of these children are limited. As Penza points out, having a park where disabled and abled children play together lets children see that deep down, they are all alike. Not all playgrounds are accessible to all children, though Penza believes that this should be the norm, and I find myself agreeing.

Penza was brought to tears on the morning of August 13th. The park was initially created by her father, and many of the items that were vandalized, such as a park bench, were made by her father. However, after the initial tears and shock, an outpouring of support came along. Over a hundred people showed up to help clean the park up, and the donors numbered in the thousands, including one child who gave up their tooth fairy money to help the cause. The park is up and running again.

Wheelchair, Swing, Accessible

(image via Scott Rains)

All children deserve to have places to live and play, not just abled children. On top of supporting places like the imPOSSIBLE Dream, which could still use donations for more repairs, there’s more you can do in the fight against ableism and other bigotry. Remind your friends that ableism doesn’t always manifest in a lack of wheelchair ramps and other Americans with Disabilities Act violations. It isn’t just disabled children being bullied in school.

Diane says that now her plan is to make the park bigger and better than ever, and though she doesn’t say how, with the support the park is attracting it will likely be amazing. She says to the vandals and their audience: “Mission NOT accomplished.” According to her, nothing can or will stand in the way of the park being open to the children who need it. The rights of disabled children to have things made just for them will not be impeded.

(featured image via Brian Wolfe)