Damian and Henry work with friends to build a dam and sand castle. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Children play in the sand at Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

For people with family members who have special needs, a trip to the local playground can present as many concerns as there are opportunities to have fun.

From wondering about convenient parking access or whether playground equipment is safe, having an outing that is comfortable for the whole family can be daunting.

On March 9, the Hemisfair Conservancy is introducing new programming aimed at helping people with special needs and their families become comfortable using the playground equipment and navigating the grounds at Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair.

On the second Saturday of every month, occupational and physical therapists will be on hand to help families learn to safely enjoy the playground and its offerings. A temporary drop-off lane will be set up along South Alamo Street near the park to make loading and unloading easier for people in wheelchairs or others needing assistance, and free parking will be available for those participating in the program.

“Inclusion programming does not mean that it is the only time individuals with special needs are welcome [at Hemisfair], it means that for the second Saturday of the month families will be surrounded by an army of people who will help them navigate through the experience,” said Anne Krause, executive director of the Hemisfair Conservancy. “The idea is that we will arm [families] with knowledge of what to do, where to park, so they can build confidence and strength to take on the adventure of the park on their own.”

In March 2012, the federal government made access to play areas a civil right under the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring that public play areas include wheelchair-friendly surfaces and equipment that helps kids with physical challenges move around. When Yanaguana Garden was built, inclusivity and access were already at the forefront of the park’s design, “from the disc swings large enough to fit both a caregiver and a rider to sensory elements aimed at keeping the attention of those with autism or [attention deficit disorder],” Krause said.

Charitable contributions from the Greehey Family Foundation, Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio, and individual donations from members of the community, will go toward purchasing more accessible equipment and enhancing already existing programs such as story time, which will now include more literature about people with disabilities, and seating options designed with physical ability in mind.

Funding will also go toward equipping each restroom with an adult-sized changing table.

During the accessibility and inclusion programming events, American Sign Language interpreters from the Alamo Colleges and Spanish translators will be on site. Yoga and art programming will be taught by people who have disabilities themselves.

“Once Hemisfair is better known as a place that is inclusive in all layers of its programming, we hope more people realize this truly is their park and will come out regularly,” Krause said.

Traci Lewand, assistant director of events at Hemisfair, has three children, one of whom is severely disabled. When planning a family outing, the most important thing is knowing what to expect, she said.

“I need to know about the hurdles I might experience so I can be prepared ahead of time, especially since only one child has special needs,” Lewand said. “Knowing that my children can have fun in the same area and access all of the same fun opportunities and equipment eases my mind as a parent of active kids.”

Lewand said that for some families with special-needs children cost is a factor in accessing inclusive play options. “Often programming aimed [at] special needs is costly, and depending on income you might not qualify for benefits to help pay for it,” she said. “As a family that [does not qualify for benefits due to income], having access to no-cost options is important to our family.”

The once-monthly accessibility and inclusion programming events will take place from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. every second Saturday, and registration opened Monday for the official program kickoff on March 9. As the program begins to gain traction, the Hemisfair Conservancy plans to open 238 surrounding parking spaces to grow the program as the community becomes more involved.

“The most important thing is that when families come out to Hemisfair, they are given a piece of hope,” Krause said. “We are trying to knock out every single barrier so that these families can come together in an environment where they can have an enjoyable experience.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.