Moving Beyond Accessibility Toward Inclusivity

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By. Jason Brent Ellis and Carla Abreu-Ellis

The Mansfield YMCA Splash Pad Park in Mansfield, Ohio, is the first splash park to move beyond accessibility compliance through making features accessible, to working towards the universal inclusion of all guests, independent of ability. The ocean-themed splash park opened its doors on May 25, 2019. The theme enhances the creativity and imagination of guests as they interact with textured sea creatures and beach features. Various elements of the park provide learning opportunities, using cause and effect, motor planning, and sensory integration.


Sensory integration for children 3 to 12 is incredibly important in that “children with sensory processing issues appear to have a delayed level of play, particularly in the complexity of their social play, and a decreased duration of time engaging with toys and objects, and they prefer toys that satisfy a sensory need” (Watts, Stagnitti, & Brown, 2014, p. e43). This suggests that children need to have options of the intensity of sensory stimulation in splash parks and that stimulation should be both self-paced (pushing a button to activate a feature) and self-directed (guests can move from one feature to another to find the desired stimulation).


Splash Park Layout
Pagliano (1998) noted the importance of multiple sensory environments, “where the environment is determined by the needs of the user” (p. 107). In this sense, self-regulation of sensory stimulation for guests becomes a required aspect of planning where a choice between calming sensory inputs and intense sensory inputs are available to meet individual needs.

The Mansfield YMCA splash park layout was carefully planned to ensure that the spaces meet the sensory needs of all guests. The splash pad has two integrated zones to allow for a smooth transition between spaces. The calming zone offers gentler, quieter features and softer sprays for those who prefer less sensory input such as the Tumbling Fish Bucket which dumps water on a smaller scale and it offers less sensory stimulation than the larger beach bucket. The Belle Sprays Jet is a feature that provides a unique tactile experience due to the sheeting effect of water. The guests can enjoy a calming experience as they feel that the water tends to be “soft” under the belle. When a guest sits under the belle spray, the sheeting water serves as a barrier between the guest and the rest of the sprayground serving as an auditory isolation area due to the white noise of the water.

The active zone includes the dumping bucket and more intense water features for guests who prefer active, high-impact areas with greater interactivity. A Braille map ensures that the park is accessible to guests who are blind and visually impaired.


Features To Enhance The Senses
The Mansfield YMCA splash park will offer guests the opportunity to strengthen their proprioceptive sense and spatial awareness as they navigate through the park and play with features that facilitate “heavy-work” (pushing, pulling, and climbing) activities, such as climbing features and the Pelican Cannon in which guests can aim and spray the cannon. The Fish Slide provides vestibular sensory input as it requires use of guest balance and head positioning. Climbing the slide steps works on guest’s motor-planning skills since they need to plan and execute their climb.

Multiple senses are engaged in some of the features selected to enhance inclusivity at the splash park. Varying types of water sprays provide multiple auditory, visual, and tactile experiences, and these features can also lead to learning opportunities. Some sprays are piped together with other outlets, so when a guest steps on one nozzle, the other nozzles spray higher, teaching cause and effect. This also encourages social interaction as guests work together to cover as many nozzles as possible. LED rings around certain surface sprays provide a unique visual element as the water changes color through a delineated choreographic motion. The splash park has a Sensory Sub which provides self-directed/ self-paced interactive auditory and visual sensory stimuli. The Sensory Sub has multiple activators that allow the guests to choose which effects to turn on, digital audio that plays when activated, LED lights, a bubble machine, two infinity mirrors, a vibrating motor, and a perspective illusion of the ocean floor. Since the features are self-directed/ self-paced, guests can pick and choose from a sensory menu of items to participate in by seeking out those features. This aspect of self-direction carries over to the Surf Bus feature which is highly interactive, encourages social interaction, provides lights and sounds, and sprays water.


Paradigm Shift In Business Philosophy
To get to the final product of inclusivity required a total shift in paradigm from Rain Drop Products LLC which started from wanting to embrace the idea that splash parks are for all people, independent of level of ability. “We had the realization that we needed to move away from a one-size-fits-all design model and into something entirely different,” noted Rain Drop’s CEO and President Mark Williams. “At that point we reached out to our higher education partners in Ashland University’s college of education to work toward shifting the paradigm in how we looked at our design process and how we talk to our clients about accessibility and disability.” The company has worked over the past few years with highly skilled researchers in disability studies and their undergraduate research students on many fronts which have shifted the business paradigm to one of inclusivity.


Making It Tactile
“Guests want tactile sensory input. In splash parks, most of the time, that occurs through the varying water pressure from the nozzles on the features. We quickly realized we could move way beyond just the traditional smooth fibreglass features and started working in different mediums to make our features feel like the real thing,” observed Heather Meade, Lead Designer at Rain Drop Products LLC.

The Mansfield YMCA incorporated the Coral Falls and Surf Up Boards into their design. The Coral Falls has multiple surfaces on it, as the coral is rough, the clams are smooth, and the starfish, and fish are rubberized. The Surf Up Boards have two types of water flow, and two types of textured surfaces as the sand is rough, and the boards and beach ball are smooth, bringing a realistic tactile experience to the spray park.

The splash park in Mansfield is a facility built with universal design in mind. The goal was to build a water park that was accessible and inclusive to all guests. This park ensures that guests can access the facility, maneuver around the environment, play with aquatic features, learn through cause and effect, and relax in the calming zone according to their own self-directed and self-paced needs.

Pagliano, P. (1998). The multi-sensory environment: An open-minded space. The British Journal of Visual Impairment, 16(3), 105-109.

Watts, T., Stagnitti, K., & Brown, T. (2014). Relationship between play and sensory processing: A systematic review. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 68, e37–e46.