Friendship park, Ra'anana 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Beit Issie Shapiro)
Anybody can install a few playground swings adapted for children with physical
disabilities. But that isn’t Israel’s vision of what an accessible play
area should be. Though they’ve only started taking off in the past six years,
parks for children with special needs combine carefully planned physical layout
with just as carefully planned companion programs geared to educating the
community about acceptance and integration.
So remarkable is this formula
that it has inspired the vice president of Ecuador, himself a paraplegic, to
seek guidance from Israel in building 200 similar parks in his home country.
Uruguay also is following Israel’s lead in this area.
“The physical and
social part of the park go together strongly,” says occupational therapist
Michele Shapiro, a specialist in sensory therapy at Beit Issie Shapiro (BIS), an
organization providing services to children with special needs, promoting
research and training and changing attitudes toward people with
“The education, programming and community outreach are what
make the park successful,” she says. “Otherwise, it becomes a white
Shapiro headed the design team responsible for the first
accessible and inclusive playground, built on a nine-acre area within the large
Ra’anana City Park with the help of the municipality and the Jewish National
Fund. This location lets children with and without special needs enjoy the
Park Haverim (Friendship Park) includes paths,
swings and carousels that can accommodate a wheelchair, as well as adaptations
for children (or accompanying adults) with hearing and sight
Educational activities and community events foster tolerance
and inclusive attitudes for children age three to 17 and their
Volunteers and staff from BIS help facilitate everyday
interactions – and also assure kids with disabilities get first priority on the
equipment, which is popular with all children.
“Without any social
intervention in the park and the schools, families of children with disabilities
won’t enjoy the park as they should and you also won’t effect change,” says BIS
project director Ronen Cohen. Parents of children with disabilities
rarely frequent playgrounds, he says.
“After their kids come home from
special education classes, they’re going from one therapy or another, they’re
very tired, they have other kids to raise, and above all they are concerned
about the way the community looks at them. That’s why they asked us to be there
and welcome them when they come to the park.”
Since Friendship Park
opened in 2005, BIS has given hundreds of tours to municipal officials from
across the country, and consults on the construction of similar
parks. Yet the July 2011 visit of Ecuadorian Vice President Lenin Moreno
Garces stands out in Cohen’s mind.
President Shimon Peres and the Foreign
Ministry coordinated the tour for the wheelchair-bound Garces, accompanied by
his family and a VIP entourage.
“We got the feeling it was really
touching for him,” says Cohen. “He took a lot of pictures and asked a lot of
questions that politicians who come here usually don’t ask, and we explained all
the details and the very clear vision behind the park as a place that provides
A few weeks later, Ecuadorian Ambassador to Israel Guillermo
Bassante contacted BIS and said the vice president wants to build some 200
Friendship Parks, in each city in Ecuador.
“It’s pretty amazing just as a
statement, and also it’s a very ambitious thing to do,” says Cohen. “I said we
will be happy to give all the help we can. I recommended beginning with two or
three parks as a pilot and appointing a professional liaison for us to deal
In addition, the Israeli Embassy in Uruguay initiated contact last
year between the South American country and BIS in order to build a Friendship
Years of planning preceded the establishment of Friendship
Park, which quickly became a model for Israel and beyond.
began with BIS founder Naomi Stuchiner. Once she had raised the necessary money,
she and community social workers organized “think tanks” of parents, adults with
special needs and therapists. They sought advice from the National
Insurance Institute, organizations working with people with various disabilities
and parents all over the world.
“When we had our answers, we put up a
park that would have equipment suitable for children with any disability and
also for typical children plus parents or grandparents with motor problems,”
“We organized it in segments – as if you’re looking at a
watch with a piece of equipment on each ‘number,’ each of a different color to
help children with visual problems to define where they are
going.” Audible water elements between certain areas help children with
sight impairments to orient themselves.
For this first venture, they
purchased tried and tested European equipment. Local companies are now making
the specialized apparatus for the Friendship Parks that BIS has been helping to
set up in several other Israeli cities since 2009 with assistance from the
National Insurance Institute, Mifal Hapayis and the Shalem Fund, among others.
Building a park costs about $100,000, and the funders’ ideal is to include
“Not all of them have the social side yet, and
those don’t do as well as ours,” says Shapiro. “Families come from all over to
use our playground. There’s also a lake and petting zoo in the larger park, so
all the kids in a family can enjoy it.”www.israel21c.org