Garfield School parent starts conversation about accessible playgrounds

Sean Spaid wants to see accessible playground equipment at Garfield Elementary School for his daughter Everlee, who uses a wheelchair.

Spaid family
Amy and Shawn Spaid pose with daughters Sage, left, and Everlee. Sean is advocating for more accessible playground equipment throughout Brainerd to accommodate Everlee's wheelchair.

BRAINERD — When it comes time to go outside for recess and play, third grader Everlee Spaid can typically be found on the blacktop near the playground — perhaps playing a game with her friends — but usually just watching her classmates.

And many times she doesn’t go outside for recess at all.

That’s because Everlee’s spastic cerebral palsy confines her to a wheelchair, which isn’t able to access the raised playground at Garfield Elementary School without a lot of assistance. And even if she does get over the ledge, the only piece of equipment she can use on the woodchip covered playground is a bucket swing, which also requires help from adults to lift her in and out of the swing.

The school’s lack of playground equipment that’s accessible for Everlee is a huge problem for her dad, Sean Spaid.

“It’s just sad to hear that she’s just sitting on the playground watching other kids play,” Spaid said during an interview in February. “And she’s usually fine with it. And it’s because it’s all she knows. She doesn’t know that she has the right to be able to play like every other kid.”


While that might be all Everlee knows, it’s not necessarily much fun for her.

“I just feel like I’m not part of the school sometimes,” she said.

Attempted grant

The school received a grant from the Brainerd Public Schools Foundation to pay for a swing compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines a couple years ago, but the installation never happened, and the funds had to be returned to the foundation.

According to Reid Thiesse, director of buildings and grounds for the school district, the small grant would not have covered a swing that met the district’s safety requirements.

Garfield playground
The raised playground edge at Garfield Elementary School poses a challenge for third grader Everlee Spaid, who uses a wheelchair.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

While there are several variations of accessible playground equipment available, Theise said the school district follows ASTM standards, which can present challenges.

ASTM — formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials — is an international standards organization with a set of recommended guidelines for public use playgrounds, which includes schools.

“Our equipment that is proposed has to be rated and certified for school playground and public playground use,” Thiesse said, noting the swing that was mentioned along with the foundation grant did not meet the district’s safety standards.

One that did so would be significantly more expensive, he said.


Updating the playground

The Garfield Parent Teacher Organization recently raised money to pay for a zipline on the playground, and that will be installed this year.

Other additions have been made in the past few years and ADA law requires public playground equipment and facilities constructed or altered on or after March 15, 2012, to comply with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

According to those standards, an accessible playground is one that offers a range of play experiences to children of varying abilities. There must be:

  • An accessible path from the building or parking lot to the edge of the play area. 
  • An accessible path from the edge of the play area to the play equipment. 
  • Surfacing that complies with ASTM 1951 (Determination of Accessibility of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment).

Once a child is in the play area, they must be able to access the play equipment by either moving out of their mobility device onto the playground structure (such as a transfer station) or by direct play structure access in their mobility device (such as a ramp).

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Everlee does have a path from the school to the edge of the play area, but the mats that were put down in an attempt to allow her to traverse the raised ledge of the playground do not stay anchored, Garfield Principal Jodi Kennedy said, meaning she can’t normally access the actual playground without help. Requests for a ramp have gone unanswered.

But even if Everlee could get over the raised edge, the woodchips on the ground are not conducive to her wheelchair. And just getting outside is an issue, too, as the back doors that open to the playground are not accessible, meaning someone has to hold them open for her to even get outside in the first place.

While Spaid said there were good ADA updates to the front of the building with the recent projects resulting from the 2018 referendum, there are still challenges for Everlee in the building.

“For her to be able to go from her school to her playground by herself, she would have to go out the front doors, down the whole block and then go into the playground,” he said. “... She technically cannot access any of the doors on three-quarters of the building.”


The alterations Garfield received over the past few years, though — including a few pieces of new equipment — don’t necessarily trigger ADA requirements.

According to the U.S. Access Board, if playground equipment is altered but the ground surface is not, the ground does not have to comply with the accessible surface standards unless the cost of providing an accessible surface is less than 20% of the cost of the alterations to the play components.

Garfield playground 2
The two bucket swings at Garfield Elementary School are the only pieces of equipment accessible for third grader Everlee Spaid, who uses a wheelchair.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

The guidelines don’t apply if equipment is relocated or for normal maintenance activities like replacing worn ropes or topping off ground surfaces.

Over the years, Thiesse said the district has done what it can to accommodate students with disabilities both in the classroom and on the playground. But the barriers to the playgrounds across the school district extend throughout the city as well, he said.

Aside from the Lincoln Education Center, Spaid said he has not encountered a single playground in Brainerd that is accessible for Everlee.

“One actual wheel chair accessible piece of equipment in the whole city is not OK,” he said. “Put up some play tables, put up some easily accessible stuff that she can pull up to. Get some more platforms that she can roll on instead of worrying about getting stuck.”

There’s also the splash pad at Memorial Park in northeast Brainerd, though that isn’t technically a playground and is only open during warm months.

A hope for change

The older Everlee gets, the harder Spaid knows it’s going to be to lift her into play areas with inaccessible surfaces, like woodchips.


While major change to the playgrounds in the district and throughout the city will likely take some time, Spaid wants to see at least a couple improvements at Garfield for his daughter’s last year of school there next year. Accessible transitions to the playground and at least one piece of equipment Everlee can use on her own are the bare minimums he has in mind.

Kennedy would like to see that, too.

“She’s a great kid, and she loves life,” Kennedy said. “I would love for her to have more opportunities here, to be able to offer her exploration and movement and all those things that we know she would enjoy doing.”

An accessible swing that Everlee can roll up to in her wheelchair and use without having to get out is Spaid’s vision to begin with, but he doesn’t want to stop at Garfield.

“I want all the schools to have something somewhat accessible, even if it’s locked down for the rest of the community,” Spaid said, noting past issues with vandalism as excuses he has heard for the lack of accessible equipment.

Kennedy said one piece of accessible equipment used to exist at Garfield, when the school had another student in a wheelchair a few years back. But students often used it in a way it was not intended to be used, necessitating various repairs. Eventually, she said the company that installed it decided to remove it instead of continuing repairs.

“None of us know when a student’s going to come that’s going to have that need. As of right now, we don’t have any new students coming, but somebody could enroll tomorrow,” Kennedy said. “And I think as we look to prepare our facilities and our sites and buildings for all learners to have that equitable experience, this is a huge next step forward for us as a district.”

Because money is undoubtedly a barrier, Kennedy said she and other district officials are looking into alternative funding methods for accessible equipment. There could be opportunities with Essentia Health, though she said they typically give larger grants than Garfield would likely be looking for, so some coordination might have to be done with other sites throughout the district for a larger project.


But no matter what the roadblock is, Spaid said something needs to be done.

“My daughter deserves to play like every other child and have fun like every other child,” he said.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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