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Isidoro Korpi with his mom, Annah Korpi (left), Vice Principal Richard Maskiell (middle), and Emma Wigal with her mom, Lisa Wigal (right), at Alexander Elementary School, Oct. 6 2023, in Albany, Ohio.

Efforts to make Alexander Elementary School’s playground inclusive

Correction appended: a previous version of this article stated “the playground at Alexander Elementary has some inclusive equipment.” The word “some” has been added to more accurately reflect the situation, and it has been corrected to say “Athens City Schools' elementary schools."

Alexander Elementary School's playground, located at 6105 School Road, is getting a new look to make it more inclusive and accessible for all who intend to use it.  

Annah Korpi and Lisa Wigal, the project leads, got the idea to renovate the playground in 2021 when they noticed many challenging aspects that made it difficult for children with disabilities to play. 

Korpi and  Lisa Wigal have children who use wheelchairs, and Lisa Wigal has another child who has sensory processing challenges. They separately approached Vice Principal Rich Maskiell to create a new playground.

"The reason we care so much about the school is if you add up the hours, our children actually are going to spend most of their playground time at a school,“ Korpi said. "It's actually not the community park."

There are four phases involved in the construction of the inclusive playground. Currently, Korpi and Lisa Wigal are working on Phase P, which focuses on playground area one for first through fifth-grade students. The first phase is working toward replacing the existing play structure with a new one with ramps. 

The estimated cost for Phase P is $250,000, but a special promotion through a playground company could provide a $75,000 price match toward the structure if the same amount is raised and ordered before the Dec. 1 deadline. So far, the pair has raised nearly $60,000, and their goal is to raise at least $40,000 more by Thanksgiving. 

If Korpi and Lisa Wigal can achieve the funds in time, the play structure will cost $100,000, as $150,000 of the price would be covered.

"We think the playground is a very important part of learning social and development social cues,” Lisa Wigal said. “We see these barriers right now that we would like to take (them) apart.”

Lisa Wigal's daughter Emma Wigal is nine years old, and she was born with congenital neuromuscular disease caused by a gene mutation that affects her nerves and muscles. Emma Wigal expressed her frustrations about not being able to use all the playground equipment her peers use.

“How are you supposed to slide down (the super dome)?” Emma Wigal asked. “Because people like me can’t hold on, I can only use the swings and slides.”

Korpi said the Athens City Schools were rebuilt within the last few years, so the playground at Athens City Schools' elementary schools have some inclusive equipment; however, the mulch, specifically, adds barriers for children who use a wheelchair or crutches. 

"I know for my daughter, she has a hard time maneuvering her wheelchair through the mulch," Lisa Wigal said. "She complains a lot that she can't make friends (and) it's interfering with her friendships and her peer relationships. A lot of times, she's watching her peers play."

While the city of Athens and other surrounding areas have semi-accessible community playgrounds, Lisa Wigal stressed the importance of children with and without disabilities learning from each other in shared spaces at school. 

"I think inclusion is great for the kids with disabilities, but it's also great for kids to grow up with inclusion so that when their peers grow into teenagers and even adulthood, they all know each other, and these people with disabilities are known by their community," Korpi said.

With the help of Maskiell, Korpi and Lisa Wigal created a feedback focus group of about 40 people and surveyed over 100 people. The group, which consisted of students with disabilities, students without disabilities, school staff and parents, shared its thoughts on the current equipment. The pair applied the feedback when designing the new playground equipment. 

"We're still in the final design process and trying to figure out where we can come to a middle ground about what can be really good for the kids but also meet teachers' needs and also be safe and inclusive,” Korpi said. "We're looking at inclusivity, durability, fun, quality of fun and safety."

The pair encourages everyone to donate whatever they can; even small donations are appreciated.

Korpi said they received their first-ever donation from Ohio University's inclusion project walk of $174, and then the Student Senate donated $250. 

Korpi and Lisa Wigal want the project to inspire other schools to strive to make the change to encompass inclusivity around all parts of school buildings. 

"This could be the catalyst for more schools to take this on and do the same things and think about what inclusion is and think about how to make things more accessible,”  Lisa Wigal said. “We know that this is a really small, but close community, and we're really hoping that this community will come together and help us with this project.” 

Although the pair still has more to do to complete the project, the women are optimistic that the project will pave the way for a more inclusive future, given the groundbreaking steps they've already taken toward accessibility for children on school playgrounds.

"We have made some really significant progress,” Maskiell said. “It's hard because it seems like we've made inches and need miles. But when I think back, we started with two independent parents and some ideas. I have to remind myself sometimes that we have made really significant progress, even though there's still a long journey ahead of us."


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