On Tuesday, Billy Penn reported that Philadelphia Parks and Recreation is considering demolishing Carousel House, a popular recreation center that historically only served the disabled, which sparked an outcry on social media. While there is no question that the Carousel House provided a safe place for people with physical and mental disabilities, we should ask why Philadelphians with disabilities were only directed to a recreation center for over 30 years.
In 2018, a disability rights activist named Fran Fulton asked Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell and then Rebuild Executive Director Nicole Westerman that very question during a summit meeting with disability advocates. When Commissioner Ott Lovell announced plans to invest $ 1 million in renovating Carousel House, Fulton thought of Carousel House as a painful reminder of how disabled people have been marginalized and marginalized in the past. Fulton urged Commissioner Ott Lovell to use the funds to make all leisure centers accessible.
Commissioner Ott Lovell spoke of that crucial moment when her perspective changed. She promised to listen and learn from various disability stakeholders. For two years I helped organize a pilot inclusion working group that worked closely with the Parks and Recreation staff to improve programmatic accessibility. The Eagles Autism Foundation hosted a one-day summit with then Sixers trainer Brett and Anna Brown, at which several hundred PPR employees took part in a training I did with the directors of the Rec Leader, Professor Roger Ideishi, Art-Reach, Arc of Philadelphia, Special Olympics Philadelphia. Carousel Connections, PHMC, and Jefferson. In 2020, PPR published a call for tenders to finance a systematic inclusion strategy plan.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including workplaces, schools, transportation, and public places. Last December, nearly 30 years after the ADA came into effect, the city released its final ADA transition plan detailing the assessment of city-owned facilities, including over 496 parks and recreation and reconstruction sites.
According to the Trust for Public Lands, 95% of Philadelphia’s residents live within “a 10-minute walk of a park”. Unfortunately, the city’s ADA plan states that only 55 city-owned websites were ADA-compliant. The plan includes a number of non-compliance issues, including non-compliant toilets, play equipment, ramps, signage, and uneven surfaces and driveways. Getting to these locations also remains a challenge: Disabled residents recently sued the city for its broken sidewalks, curb cuts and zebra crossings. In a city with the highest disability rate among the largest US cities, these barriers to inclusion are unacceptable.
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on disabled people, including blacks, Latinx and AAPI people, has left colored communities with long-term disabilities. We know that parks and public spaces are critical to restoring health and wellbeing in our communities. Mayor Kenney’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget rightly restores funding for Parks and Recreation, an agency that has long seen systemic divestments and neglect. Without additional funding, however, I fear that the city will not achieve its goal of ADA compliance by 2028.
We cannot achieve justice without ensuring full inclusion and participation for all, including our disabled residents. In addition to these renovations, our parking and recreation systems require adequate staffing and training to provide meaningful access to people with a variety of disabilities, including people who are deaf, blind, or with cognitive, sensory and mental disabilities. I invite executives and lawyers to work with the disability community to ensure residents in each neighborhood have access to accessible spaces, well-trained staff, and inclusive programs.
Anna Perng is a disability attorney and co-founder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project. She is a member of the Mayors’ Commission for People with Disabilities.