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Beth Adams reports on efforts to make recreation more accessible throughout Greater Rochester.

The road to inclusion: A playground where 'no one's left on the sidelines'

Child and adult sitting in swing
Beth Adams
MJ and Mike Bentley enjoy the friendship swing at Motion Junction, an all-inclusive playground in Canandaigua, which was build through volunteer and community support.

On a bright Saturday afternoon in September, Motion Junction was buzzing.

Dozens of people, from toddlers to grandparents, explored the sensory-rich, all-inclusive playground in Canandaigua.

Among the visitors were Michael Bentley and his 11-year-old son, Michael Joseph, or "MJ," who was the inspiration for the park. When MJ was about six months old, he was diagnosed with Pallister Killian syndrome, a rare condition affecting his speech, mobility, and cognition.

Throughout his life, his parents searched for places MJ could play with friends who don't have disabilities, but they always came up short.

"So we launched a campaign, and this is where we ended up almost five years later," Bentley said.

The campaign, headed by Bentley, his wife Nanci, and MJ's physical therapist, Sonya Smith, collected more than $1.6 million in community donations. Bentley said the town of Canandaigua was a true partner in the effort, contributing the land at 2640 Outhouse Road and donating the equipment and work hours needed for the site preparation work. More than 760 volunteers helped put the playground together in time for its June opening.

Everything is accessible for people with disabilities — but it also allows people of any age or ability to engage in play together.

That socialization piece is a key part of the experience, Bentley said.

"There's what, 75 people here now? They typically wouldn't have the opportunity to play alongside somebody that has different abilities than they do," he said.

Motion Junction is a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. Orange, blue, and lime green slides, swings, bucket rides, and a zip line sit on top of a bright blue, rubberized surface that's a dream to walk on.

Motion Junction 1.jpg
Beth Adams

A light gray path embedded in the rubber winds its way throughout the park like a sidewalk. The contrast in colors was designed for people with visual impairments.

Standing at one end of the playground, Bentley pointed out that it's a level playing field for MJ and any other person.

"If you look throughout, there's no place that I can go that he can't go in an upright posture," he said. "So, if he wanted to go to the Memory Garden, he and I would both have to break our upright posture to get there, whether you're in a wheelchair, or a walker, or an upright walking position. The same means of travel is for each one of us."

Thought was put into every aspect of the design, from the parking lot to the communication center, with symbols arranged on plastic tiles for people who are non-verbal and a tactile playground map in Braille.

Once four, fully accessible restrooms and a pavilion with a concession stand are added on the north side of the park, Motion Junction will become the first certified, universally designed playground in the United States.

The certification will be issued by the University at Buffalo's Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center).

The center's assistant director, Danise Levine, is an architect who helped design Motion Junction. She said while requirements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act focus on a physical space, universal design considers the user's experience.

"For the most part, universal design is just good design," she said. "(It) addresses barriers faced by all people, including people with disabilities, children, older adults, and any other population the design process usually overlooks."

In order to qualify for certification, a site has to meet a certain number, but not all of the 500 accessible solutions listed by the IDEA Center. Some of the criteria are voluntary. The center has certified other projects, such as office buildings, museums, and a synagogue. Motion Junction will be the first playground to claim the distinction.

Levine encourages designers and project planners to consider incorporating universal design strategies into a project, even if they won't qualify for certification.

"If cost is a barrier, if implementation is a barrier, then whatever you can possibly do is still an improvement," she added.

Like other sites offering inclusive recreation, Motion Junction draws visitors from across New York state and beyond. Some come from as far away as Florida and Iowa. One family from England stopped by this summer, according to Bentley.

In early September. Bill Ross from Kenmore, near Buffalo, was enjoying the playground with his family and friends. They were vacationing nearby.

"We knew that the kids would have a great time here, so we brought them here and they're having fun," he said. "Even though the accessibility doesn't really affect our children, it's very, very nice to see that there are parks like this."

Ryan Spaugh is the son of one of Ross' friends.

"I really like it," Ryan said. "I like how everything just moves around. I really like the zipline. It's really fun."

Bentley helped MJ out of his wheelchair so he could enjoy his favorite friendship swing. Once he was secured in the seat with a safety bar, Bentley jumped onto the adjacent swing and they glided through the air in unison.

"There's that smile!" Bentley said, beaming at his son.

Motion Junction 4.jpg
Beth Adams
Motion Junction is a universally designed playground for people of all ages and abilities in Canandaigua.

In another section of the park, MJ often has physical therapy sessions on a set of parallel bars. He is supported while gripping onto the bars. The exercise is intended to build his strength.

Nearby is a ramp wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or other mobility device. It leads to a slide. What makes this slide different is the bench situated beside it. This is a place someone can sit while their wheelchair is brought back.

Gazing around at all the people enjoying a space that was just an idea a few short years ago, Bentley's voice trembled briefly as he described what it means to him and his family.

"It's humbling, to say the least," he said. "What's most important is, no one's left on the sidelines."

Levine and Bentley said they have fielded inquiries from around western New York to Texas about how communities can start their own universally designed playgrounds.

"Our true quest is to spread this across the nation and the world," Bentley said, "because this is needed."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.
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