Should NH mandate solid playground paths for wheelchairs?
According to some Granite Staters, new playgrounds are failing to provide access for children with disabilities. Now the state legislature is considering a bill that would require solid, rubber-like materials for playground pathways.
Insufficient playground access
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) already requires new playgrounds to provide wheelchair-accessible pathways.
However, Windham, Exeter, and other towns have discovered their new playgrounds are accessible to wheelchairs on paper but not in practice. These playgrounds use engineered wood fiber products that are supposed to provide a firm, stable surface for wheelchairs. These products are even certified to comply with the ADA. Nevertheless, Granite Staters report their wheelchairs are going nowhere.
Joseph Pappalardo, parent to a daughter with cerebral palsy, told state legislators about his experience at a new playground in Windham. “I was pushing my daughter’s wheelchair, and bark mulch surface, and her chair immediately started to sink,” he said. “And it became very clear within the first few feet that this wasn’t going to work.”
Pappalardo worked with Rep. Katelyn Kuttab, a Republican from Windham, to sponsor a bill that would require any new public playground to include accessible pathways, made from rubber or a similar solid surface, from the entrance of the playground to each piece of playground equipment. That bill, HB 467, is waiting on a final vote in the House.
A problem with wood products
At a public hearing for HB 467, Rep. Kuttab said there are multiple problems with the wood products used at the Windham playground and in many other towns. The wood fiber is displaced as children run around. It can disintegrate after taking a beating from New England weather. It’s supposed to be regularly raked and levelled, but Kuttab couldn’t name a town where this maintenance takes place.
She also found out it would cost Windham roughly half a million dollars to fix the inaccessible surface on their elementary school playground.
“What I’m really looking to do is basically clarify so that we can understand what’s the intent behind the federal law so that we don’t keep making mistakes and having kids that can’t use the playground and having to pay to fix that afterwards,” she said.
Other supporters of HB 467 noted this bill will not only help children; it will help parents with strollers, teachers in wheelchairs, and anyone else with a mobility issue who wants to access a public playground.
In defense of wood products
HB 467 does not have unanimous support, however.
Jasen Stock, Executive Director of the NH Timberland Owners Association, spoke against HB 467 at the Senate hearing.
“I heard wood chips, I heard wet bark mulch, which is different. And I think we all would agree, wet bark mulch and wood chips, those are products that would be difficult to have a wheelchair cross,” he said. “What I’m talking about is a different product. … This is an engineered wood fiber product. It gets ground and re-ground and sized and then when it is installed and compacted that is very different than bark mulch or just wood chips.”
He went on to argue that the language of the bill excluding “loose fill or aggregate” pathways would unjustly ban these wood products.
Ben Crowell, owner and Vice President of Durgin and Crowell Lumber Company, suggested the problem is upkeep, not the product itself. If engineered wood fiber surfaces are raked and properly maintained, wheelchairs should be able to roll.
Lastly, some speakers expressed concern about the environmental impact of rubber surfaces.
Next steps for HB 467
The Senate slightly changed the language in HB 467, and the House must vote on this new language before the bill heads to Gov. Sununu. If you support a state requirement for solid, rubber-like pathways on playgrounds, or if you believe the state should find a different solution, reach out to your state representative and share your opinion. You can find who represents you on our Elected Officials page.