Ali can play and race with his brothers, thanks to an inclusive-design play centre
When 12-year-old Ali Meksassi goes to a park or play centre with his brothers he is often left on the sidelines watching them have fun.
Ali was born with 49, XXXXY syndrome, a type of chromosome disorder that impacts on his motor skills and prevents him from climbing. He also has mild autism and ADHD, which makes it difficult to participate in spaces with loud music.
“Generally when we go to other places he just observes, [he] doesn’t interact,” his mother Eman Meksassi says.
“He just watches them because it’s too much. It’s too loud.”
But at a new all-abilities centre in south-west Sydney, Ali can ride on the flying foxes, climb the climbing walls and play on the swings.
The play equipment has been designed with people such as him in mind. The flying fox has a chair with a seatbelt, the climbing walls have soft hand holds and the swing is a flat, circular cradle.
Importantly, he can compete in games with his nine-year-old brother Mohamad. For example, the flying fox is paired with another swing made for more able-bodied users, so they can race each other.
“They were racing together. He was like, “I can’t wait to come again. We can all play together,” Ms Meksassi says.
“Because normally, Ali’s just observing him play and he won’t have a go.”
The soon-to-open non-profit centre Activate Central is a fresh example of inclusive design being used in recreational spaces in Sydney to accommodate people living with disabilities.
Ali is a client of Psych Central, a psychology services arm of the company that runs Activate Central.
The centre will open to the public at the end of October.
The parent company’s chief executive Basim Alansari says the centre was set up in response to the lack of a facilities in Western Sydney that could accommodate both the service’s clients and their peers.
“Most of the play centres out there, they either basically host mainstream people and kids to enjoy the facilities, or they are specifically made for kids with disabilities,” Mr Alansari says.
“But there is no place for all kids of all abilities as well as adults to be able to enjoy the facilities together.”
Mr Alansari says this approach will mean parents will be able to play alongside their kids at the centre. The centre also has trained staff to support clients and their carers.
While inclusively designed equipment costs more than non-inclusive equipment — and in the case of the flying fox which Mr Alansari says cost about $50,000, nearly twice that of a standard piece — the expense is worth it.
Designing for neuro diversity
Associate Professor Phillippa Carnemolla from the University of Technology Sydney’s design school says new state-based recommendations have seen the community, along with state and local governments working together to incorporate inclusive design in new play spaces.
“In the past we’ve tended to focus on physical disability,” Dr Carnemolla says.
“Now we’re really seeing a building of understanding around what neuro diverse children might want.”
The New South Wales government’s “Everyone Can Play” guidelines helps local councils and designers to create accessible playgrounds in the community.
Since 2018 the state government has also allocated $20 million in grants to local councils and state agencies for upgrades, and to build 114 new accessible outdoor play spaces.
Open space commissioner Fiona Morrison says it is not more expensive to make spaces more inclusive.
“That’s a bit of a myth that was busted,” Ms Morrison says.
Making spaces more accessible can be as easy as making a level pathway to the playground, or ensuring there is shade so parents and carers are able to stay for longer periods of time.
One example of the state’s funding programs is the play space at Parramatta Park in Sydney’s west.
Everything in the park is made at grade so children and parents in wheelchairs are able to partake in activities, Ms Morrison says.
“It doesn’t cost more to create an inclusive play space. What it requires is great design.”
Chair of Universal Design Australia Jane Bringolf was consulted for the new guidelines. Ms Bringolf says play spaces provide an important part of a child’s life.
“Play is a really important part of a child’s development. It’s where they learn to socialise,” Ms Bringholf says.
“It’s not just about learning through play, developing skills, it’s also about the social aspect of it as well.
Children such as Ali Meksassi will benefit from places that are designed with their needs in mind.
“He’s able to compete with siblings, he’s able to play with them, and not just sit aside and just watch,” Ms Meksassi says.