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Special playground equipment makes recess better for students with physical disabilities

Photo: DeeDee Adams, a Rosewood Magnet School exceptional student education teacher pushes Noah Fleming on playground equipment modified for children with disabilities.

Thanks to new technology and innovative thinking by county school officials, students with physical disabilities no longer sit on the sidelines while their peers play on swings, slides and other playground equipment during school recess.

Noah Fleming, a fifth grader at Rosewood Magnet School, lacks muscle control and is unable to speak, due to cerebral palsy, but he is mentally capable and cognizant of everybody around him, according to his father, Mark Fleming.

“School officials wanted to lay Noah on a slab of cement under a pavilion during recess while the other children played,” Mark Fleming says. “That’s when I stepped in and asked the district if they could come up with something that would allow my son to enjoy recess also.”

After a little investigating, Jon Teske, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, discovered a wheel-chair platform that attaches to a regular swing set, allowing Noah and other children who don’t have physical disabilities to swing side-by-side.

One day last week, Noah was enjoying the special equipment, grinning broadly as teaching assistant Dee Adams gently pushed the large swinging platform that holds Noah’s wheelchair in place.

All of the district’s elementary schools have playgrounds that include standardized equipment accessible to students with various disabilities, but occasionally, as in Noah’s case, more specialized equipment is needed, said Peter Copeman, whose job as the school district’s building officer is to make sure playground equipment is installed correctly and is safe for use.

The specialized swing, which cost $1,485.38 and was installed by school staff, was paid for out of the district’s playground equipment fund, Copeman said. When Noah graduates to middle school, the swing can be relocated to another playground unless there is another student at Rosewood who needs it.

There are currently 17 students enrolled at Rosewood who have a physical disability, said Principal Casandra Flores. The school’s playground reflects that diversity.

Four years ago, the district built a cement pathway, so that students who use wheelchairs or have trouble walking have an easier route to get to and from the playground, Mark Fleming said. When Noah first began attending Rosewood, teachers had to push Noah’s wheelchair through a grassy gulley that sometimes resulted in the boy’s chair nearly tipping over.

During a recent recess, a kindergartner with visual difficulties played with a basketball-sized bright yellow ball that emits distinct squeaking sounds making tracking easier for kids who can’t see well.  Another child, who uses a small walker, climbed into a bright red plastic swing with latches that hold the student securely in place.

“Sometimes I think I’m having a bad day,” Mark Fleming said. “But then I think about Noah. He’s already had a hip replacement and a spinal infusion. But something as simple as a swing makes him happy. It’s made all the difference in the world for him.”

Adams, who has been working with Noah since he was in kindergarten, says she’s glad students with disabilities can play among other students. It helps students like Noah feel they belong, giving them more opportunities to interact with their peers.

Andrea Woodson, who has been Noah’s teacher since kindergarten, said she does worry how the boy will be treated when he moves on to middle school where students can be less kind and more judgmental.

“I love Noah,” Woodson said. “He loves school. His favorite things to do are math, listen to music and play on his swing. And he has such a great sense of humor. Sometimes when I say we have to get to work, I’ll look over and he’ll pretend to be sleeping.”