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Michigan teen helps disabled brother swing high at the playground

Detroit Free Press - 5/6/2017

May 06--When Forrest Bernhardt needed an Eagle Scout project, he came up with an idea to help his wheelchair-using brother, Zachary, have more fun at the local park.

The then-14-year-old Whitehall youth started raising money to buy a swing that could accommodate a wheelchair.

"I saw that my brother wasn't able to play like the other kids because he had cerebral palsy," said Bernhardt, now 22. "I wanted to do something to help."

That was 2009.

Three frustrating years and $23,000 later, the mission was accomplished. The chair, built by Liberty Swings out of Australia, was shipped to Grand Rapids and installed at Goodrich Park near the brothers' home in Whitehall.

Since then, parks across Michigan are trying to revamp playgrounds to be accessible to disabled people. Dearborn Heights recently approved the installation of a wheelchair swing at one of its busiest parks. The city joins Southfield, Wayne and West Bloomfield, among others, with barrier-free park facilities aimed at helping those with special needs.

However, Cynthia Burkhour of Jenison, an advocate and consultant who helps communities redesign parks, said Michigan lags behind other states when it comes to improving park accessibility.

"It has been a part of my life personally, and professionally as well," said Burkhour, whose daughter suffered a stroke when she was 12 and who has a brother who was born with multiple disabilities. "We're way behind other states and communities in really making the effort to make things more accessible."

Burkhour, who owns Access Recreation Group, said while some communities got started on improving accessibility as soon as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 2000, many are just now taking up the issue.

"Some of that is just indicative of park systems," she said. "You put in something, a picnic area or playground, and usually they're very well built and built to last a really long time. As people are replacing things or upgrading, they're taking that opportunity to make things more accessible. Anytime anyone in Michigan is making a change to a park, they are all paying attention to the accessibility upgrades."

Burkhour said she's an advocate of inclusive universal design, which goes beyond ADA requirements.

When Bernhardt launched his Eagle Scout project, he didn't know he was helping pave the way for parks across the state of Michigan to become more accessible.

"It took three years to raise all the money,'' said Bernhardt. At the time, chairs weren't available in the U.S. Overseas shipping, higher prices at the time and the exchange rate were reasons for the high cost.

"I started when I was 14. I wasn't sure what Eagle Scout project I wanted to do, but I was doing some research online and came across this project and thought it was really cool. Zachary has cerebral palsy, and I thought it would be a cool project. I started fund-raising for it. I didn't really know what I was doing. It took me longer than I anticipated. He still uses the swing.

"It has fencing that goes around it. The actual swing has a ramp that locks into the bucket of the swing. In order to disengage the ramp to use the swing you have to have a key. It's locked up most of the day.''

Bernhardt bought a bunch of extra keys that he gives out to different group homes in the area and people who could benefit from enjoying the swing.

"There's a sign that tells you where you can go borrow a key from local businesses,'' said Bernhardt. "You go and sign out the key and bring it back. It's not hard to get to, but it's guarded. When people see my mom or me, they say, 'Hey, we use the swing a lot.' At Goodrich Park it's the only thing accessible to people with disabilities."

Over the years, the price for wheelchair swings has dropped substantially as the number of suppliers increased. That's led to more parks installing them.

In Dearborn Heights, a wheelchair swing will be installed at Van Houten Park behind City Hall some time this spring.

"This is a way to start moving the physically challenged into a position where they can enjoy our parks," said Ken Grybel, Dearborn Heights parks and recreation director.

He hoped youngsters and residents would be mindful of using the chair in the right way once it's installed. The city is currently taking bids on who would install the chair, estimated to cost between $3,000 and $5,000. If the first swing is successful, Grybel said the city will consider adding more.

Other metro Detroit parks that have installed play equipment that is accessible for those with disabilities include Inglenook Park in Southfield and MarshBank Park in West Bloomfield.

Parks and Rec Director Joe Ketchum said West Bloomfield has exceeded ADA guidelines at MarshBank.

"When we built MarshBank Park, we built it universally accessible,'' said Ketchum. "ADA has minimum laws for accessibility. Universal accessibility is a step above that, where you kind of look at the whole park to try and figure out how you can make this accessible to everybody.

"I have a brother who has cerebral palsy. He was born with disabilities. ... All of us, somewhere along the line, will have some sort of disability in life. With me, I've had some knee surgeries. I've been on crutches and people have hip and back issues, so you look at the whole park and your whole design process.''

In Wayne County, officials are focused on improving accessibility at the 17-mile-long Hines Park, said Alicia Bradford, director of parks and recreation.

"We have a number of recreation areas in Hines Park that have accessible access to the structures and comfort stations, which include walkways and parking lots,'' said Bradford. "We do have some playscapes that are ADA accessible that have some interactive panels for inclusive and ADA access.

"Then we have some inclusive play structures where those with cognitive and learning disabilities are able to interact on a play structure within Hines Park as well so they can all play together.''

Bradford said most parks in Wayne County have equipment that is accessible to disabled people. For example, the Wayne County Aquatic Facility in Chandler Park in Detroit not only has zero entry pool access, it provides water-accessible wheelchairs.

Wayne County also is looking to install wheelchair swings by the end of the summer, she said.

Contact Perry A. Farrell: pafarrell@freepress.com

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