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Schenectady second-grader’s call for accessible playground spurs districtwide review

Schenectady second-grader’s call for accessible playground spurs districtwide review

Superintendent plans audit of accessibility of district's playgrounds
Schenectady second-grader’s call for accessible playground spurs districtwide review
Mhy-Shawn Gibbs, 8, sits in wheelair at Woodlawn Elementary School Friday.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SCHENECTADY — Woodlawn Elementary School second-grader Mhy-Shawn Gibbs' letter calling for more handicapped-accessible playground equipment last week sparked a review of all playgrounds across the city school district.

For a class project on persuasive writing, Mhy-Shawn, 8, penned a letter explaining why he thinks students who use wheelchairs, like himself, need better access to the school playground.

“I think there should be more playground equipment for wheelchair users at school. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t get on most of playground equipment,” Mhy-Shawn wrote in his letter. “It’s not fair. Kids in wheelchairs need to play and have fun too. Play and fun is important for kids. It needs to be equal for all kids.”

Mhy-Shawn's teacher, Robbin Fragnoli-Heenan, sent his letter to the school board and Superintendent Larry Spring. She called it an “excellent piece of writing” and “an important request from a student.”

Spring and the board agreed.

At Wednesday's school board meeting, where Mhy-Shawn's letter was read into the record, Spring admitted playground accessibility has been “a blind spot” as the district has focused its attention on improving the accessibility of school buildings.

“I think the young man brings up some fantastic advocacy,” Spring said. “Shame on me: It's an area I happen to be passionate about and I have not audited the accessibility of our playgrounds. Beyond Woodlawn, I think we want to take a look at all of our playgrounds.”

Spring said he didn't know the specifics of how the audit would be conducted, but said he expected it could be completed by the end of the summer. While some playground equipment can be improved in the short term, complete overhauls come with a larger price tag and may have to wait.

Spring said the audit would aim to identify where current playgrounds fall short of accessibility for students with special needs before officials can map out how to move forward to make improvements.

“Accessible playground equipment is universally accessible,” Spring said. “Having that lens as we look at our playground equipment, I think, can be quite helpful if we think about it through the lens of only having equipment every child can use.”

Wearing a shirt that said “Keep it Positive,” Mhy-Shawn on Friday was joined by his grandmother, Roslyn Stevens. Both said they were surprised to learn about the impact Mhy-Shawn's letter had on district officials.

“I didn't know they would look at all of them,” Mhy-Shawn said of other schools.

On the playground, Mhy-Shawn can play ball or tag with classmates, but most of the equipment is off-limits to a student in a wheelchair. A long row of swings includes one that is handicapped-accessible.

“All they have is that swing,” Fragnoli-Heenan said of students who use wheelchairs – there are at least three of them at Woodlawn and others who use a chair part time.

“And he's saying it's not fair,” Mhy-Shawn's grandma said as she surveyed the playground and teared up discussing the letter. “It never impacted me until now, coming here and seeing what he's dealing with and how it's not fair. It takes this 8-year-old kid to speak up on that.”

Paraprofessional Lisa Fine has worked one on one with Mhy-Shawn since halfway through his kindergarten year. She said his physical strength has grown significantly in the past two years, recalling how he couldn't hold down a piece of paper with his right hand a few short years ago. His positivity and optimism, though, have remained steady all along, she said.

“I get angry about all the things he can't do, but not him,” Fine said of the playground equipment and its limitations for Mhy-Shawn.

“He makes you fight for him,” Stevens said. “It's a message coming from a child who is living it.”

Also Friday, June 8:

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