Playground Fight: ADA Compliance Vexing City Schools 

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It's been two years since Richmond Public Schools officials reached a settlement agreement to fix schools that fail to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. John B. Cary Elementary is one of just four schools out of more than 50 in Richmond considered compliant with the law.

Compliance, however, is in the eye of the beholder. And if those eyes are wheelchair-bound, compliance may feel like a begrudging afterthought. The handicap entrance to John B. Cary is located in the rear of the building, not too far from the trash bin. It's new, with colorful handrails, but it's still a "boiler room entrance" to many of the parents of children with disabilities at the school.

If that entrance rubs some a little wrong, the playground is a slap in the face. High curbs hold in mulch -- and hold out children with disabilities. A grassy, uneven expanse has been deemed a handicap-accessible path by schools officials. The play equipment is equally unusable to children in wheelchairs or dependent on walkers.

John B. Cary and other city schools stands in the crosshairs of a growing struggle between the School Board, ADA lawyers and the feuding factions at City Hall. Having received funding for the new handicap entrance and other small improvements, the well-regarded West End school, which sits next to Maymont Park, is better positioned than most.

Of the millions of dollars in required ADA improvements the school system agreed to in its 2005 settlement, Cary's handicap ramp is among the few improvements that have been completed. The Richmond Schools budget allocates little more than $300,000 for improvements for all city schools during the coming year.

Amid the cash crunch, some parents at Cary are taking matters into their own hands to fix their playground.

Ania Swanson's son, Ruben, is 3. Diagnosed with CHARGE syndrome as a baby, he suffers from genetic birth defects that require him to use a walker to get around. But he's a happy, healthy boy obsessed with anything NASA.

Richmond Schools "offers very little for support," says Swanson, who is heading a committee raising money to build a new playground accessible to all. "Even his classroom is not accessible," Swanson says. "The bathroom is not accessible. This school was built in, what, '54?"

Even those who teach students with disabilities at the school agree the playground falls short of its billing as accessible. "I'd say only four of the [children with disabilities] could use the swings," says Arlene Cooper, an instructional assistant at the school for nearly a decade. She calls handicap accessibility at the school "a struggle."

The school's principal, Brenda Phillips, estimates that 10 percent of the school's students have a disability. She supports the parent's plan: "Simply, if you have a walker or wheelchair, being able to ride over turf or a surface that would not hinder children from getting to the playground [is important]."

So far, the principal, PTA and Richmond Schools administration have approved Swanson's plan. Now she just needs money, she says — she has $550 toward the necessary $260,000.

"I can sit being flabbergasted that nothing is done," she says, "or I can do something — so I'm doing something." S

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