Play For Life: Accessing the World

Years ago, when I met Tim Denny, the Director of Parks and Recreation for Haverford Township, PA, he discussed the inclusive Merry Place park and how it got started as a place where people of all abilities could “play” together. To sum up his story about this remarkable place and the importance of universal design in our lives, he concluded with, “After all, we are only temporarily able!” This thought kept resurfacing throughout the Play For Life Symposium held in Minnetonka, MN, this past week.

The Symposium open with Muffy and Jeff Davis, an extraordinary couple. In 1989, as a young Olympic trainee in skiing, Muffy Davis’s life changed when she crashed into a tree and suffered spinal injuries that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Not one to give up, she focused on academics and graduated from Stanford University. In 1998, she took the bronze medal while on the US Disabled Ski Team competing in the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano Japan. Today she is a member of the US Paralympic Cycling Team, a wife, a mother of an almost-three year old daughter, and founder of Access the World. The Play for Life Symposium opened with a video made by Muffy and her husband, Jeff, of their journey around the world as ambassadors for inclusivity. While the video showcased the organizations in developing countries that were furthering the cause of inclusivity, the couple provided insight into the difficulties of travel outside of the modern world.

Some of the biggest problems: sidewalks or streets were not accessible; the cities (or villages) provided access only by stairs, not ramps; wheelchairs were too wide to access lavatories/rest rooms; and transportation methods, such as taxis in pre-Olympic China, did not stop for handicapped people.

The couple recommended that those countries and cities with the best accommodations were recent Olympic sites and big modern cities. Developing countries and historic old cities frequently have problems, especially with accessible toilets and transportation. Their recommendations: if you have disabilities and need to (or would like to) travel, you need to become a good planner, be flexible, and select your destinations carefully. Bring your own assistive devices and carry all your medical supplies with you (but don’t label them as such because that will carry a high fee). Be ready for anything and, above all, have a good attitude.

A few minutes later, Billy McLaughlin got up to play his guitar. Unlike most acoustic guitar players, McLaughlin doesn’t strum his instrument; he plays it up on the neck. This style made him famous back in the 1980s when he rose up the charts in New Age music and was offered recording contracts by Wyndham Hill Productions. Then, two of his fingers stopped functioning. Doctors said this was a neuromuscular disease called focal dystonia. Within five years, McLaughlin’s world fell apart –unable to play the guitar, he lost his record contract, his gigs, and even his marriage. Yet, his passion for playing guitar would not let up. After hearing poor medical prognoses about his recovery, he evaluated what still worked – his other 8 fingers – and began playing the guitar with his left, instead of right, hand. The change took him years to master – “I had to start all over again as a beginner,” he confessed, “and this was perhaps a bigger obstacle. But it was not nearly as bad as never playing again.” Then McLaughlin treated us to more of his musical magic and Tim Denny’s words pop up in my head, ”We are only temporarily able…”

Think about all the people you know – from your elderly parents or grandparents to toddlers and infants, to your spouse or friend who pulled a muscle or needs new glasses or has gluten intolerance – and you realize that we all have difficulties in the physical environment. It’s not just about the nameless faces on disability television commercials or billboards! It’s about US – all of us! Our need for interdependence as well as independence shows us the importance of universal design.

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