Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

A Swing for All Children

Victor Leeman throws back his head, letting out a gleeful squeal as he flies from one end of his room to the other. Nothing gets the 3-year-old grinning and giggling quite like the swing that hangs from his bedroom ceiling.

"He loves to be swung," says his mom, Laura Leeman. "He's not mobile. It's important for him to feel that sense of his body moving around."

The Leemans installed Victor's swing a couple of years ago, knowing of only one playground in Seattle that had a swing designed for children with little or no muscle control. Victor has a seizure disorder that severely limits his movement. He can't walk and needs help sitting upright and holding up his head.

The first outdoor swing his parents found for him was at Seattle Children's PlayGarden at the north end of Rainier Valley, where a nonprofit that goes by the same name is working to give all kids, but especially those with special needs, a safe, fun place to play. With its large, slightly reclined, yellow plastic seat, the PlayGarden swing held Victor comfortably. It didn't have a brace or bar, so he couldn't swing really high like he does in his room, but it worked better than anything he'd ever tried outdoors before.

But the PlayGarden is at least a half hour's drive from Victor's home in Ballard, so his mom went looking for similar swings that weren't so far away. The few she found didn't always work for Victor. Her morale hit rock bottom one day when she tried out a "tot bucket" swing, one designed for toddlers. Victor got stuck in it, and as she struggled to pry him out, no one came to help her until she was in tears.

Tired of feeling so disheartened, she e-mailed Seattle's Department Parks and Recreation one day, someone e-mailed her back hours later, and within months, the city added a yellow swing to Ballard Community Center playground, about five blocks from the Leemans' home.

Rick Jones, a PlayGarden board member, learned about Leeman's effort, got to talking with other board members, and they decided to launch a "Yellow Swing in Every Park" campaign. "I don't think there's much question in most people's minds that it's just a logical thing to do – and kind of an embarrassment that it isn't already done," says Jones, whose 7-year-old daughter, Annie, has spinal muscular atrophy, a motor neuron disease that makes her so weak she can't stand or sit upright. And like Victor, she has difficulty with head control.

"Adaptive" or "universally accessible" swings, as manufacturers and parks officials call them, come in various colors besides yellow – red, green, blue. There are many designs, but most have a deep seat, a harness and support for a child's back and head.

At least 21 of the city's 140 or so playgrounds already have the special swings. Each one costs about $500 to install, and Tim Gallagher, Seattle's parks superintendent, says his goal is to add them to 30 more playgrounds this summer.

Though they're designed with federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards in mind, the swings are popular with all kids, so taking out a regular, old swing and replacing it with an adaptive one doesn't limit options for children who aren't disabled. "They're used by everybody," says Pamela Alspaugh, a senior landscape architect for the parks department.

Some are big enough for Annie Jones' 10-year-old and 4-year-old sisters to fit onto the swing with her. "There's arms and legs hanging out everywhere, but they can do it – and boy, is it fun!" Rick Jones says.

Swinging is also good physical therapy for many disabled kids. At Boyer Children's Clinic, a school in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood that serves kids with cerebral palsy and other developmental delays, therapists use various types of swings to help Victor Leeman and his classmates move their bodies around.

Victor's mom sees big improvements in his muscle control both during and after good swinging sessions. While he's swinging, "he'll push himself up because he's so excited he's moving more than he typically does," she says. He likes it so much that he usually cries when swinging time is over. Afterward, his movements tend to be stronger than they normally are. "I feel like he has a better sense of his body. He gets all squiggly," Leeman says, taking Victor's legs by the ankle and bending his knees one at a time, faster and faster until he laughs and starts pushing back a little.

The last time the Leemans went to their neighborhood yellow swing, some straps had been ripped out of the plastic seat. It's a persistent problem, and the parks department keeps spare straps at some Community Centers. The city also is considering placing stickers on the swings with a phone number parents can call if it's missing straps. Leeman wonders if signs explaining that the swings are the only ones some disabled kids can use might deter some vandals from stealing the straps in the first place.

At times, the wheels of bureaucracy have turned slowly enough to make yellow swing activists wonder if their efforts were ever going to pay off. But the city says it's committed to the project as part of its efforts to make playgrounds more accessible to children with special needs. It is now in the process of installing adapative swings in five playgrounds – Cascade Park, Georgetown Playfield, Madison Park, Ravenna Eckstein Community Center and West Queen Anne Playfield – and has a list of nearly 30 other parks that could soon be getting them.

"It's too bad it's taken this long," Jones says. "But now that the wheels are turning, I think they're turning with good will."

Elizabeth M. Gillespie is former managing editor of Seattle's Child.

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Elizabeth M. Gillespie