ON A SUNNY DAY IN LATE 2004, Kavitha Krishnamoorthy took her two-and-a-half-year-old son to a neighbourhood park in north Bangalore. The child, Ananth, was delighted to see greenery and feel a breeze on his face. In a corner of the park was a small playground. Multicoloured slides, swings, merry-go-rounds and seesaws invited kids to play. Ananth, however, couldn’t rush to the playground with abandon, as other children did; he suffers from seizures, and has been diagnosed with certain features of autism. “Special children used to sit on the peripheries of the play areas and hungrily gape at others who played,” Krishnamoorthy said. “That is what we wanted to change.”
Krishnamoorthy got to work that year, alongside her husband and another couple, to partner with the municipal corporation of Bangalore in building playgrounds for children with special needs. In 2006, she registered a non-profit organisation called Kilikili, after a Kannada word for the cheery laugh of a child. That same year, after two years of the group’s efforts in getting disinterested public officials to cooperate, Bangalore got its first disabled-friendly public playground, located within the city’s century-old Coles Park. Similar playgrounds were installed in two other city parks in subsequent years, and now see a steady flow of special-needs, physically-challenged and other kids every day.
Bangalore now has the highest number of such playgrounds of any city in the country. The only others are in Mumbai, Mangalore and Nagpur, which each have one, making for a nationwide total of only six for the 12 million people under the age of 19 with some form of physical or mental disability, according to the 2011 census (activists say the actual number is far higher).
It isn’t difficult or expensive to tweak playground equipment to suit the needs of special children. Krishnamoorthy, who collaborated with a team of architects to design the playgrounds in Bangalore, offered the example of slides. Earlier, “it was easy for Ananth to climb up to the top … but he had a fear of heights and could never slide down.” At the new Coles Park playground, the sides of the structure were elevated, and the slide itself made convex, so children who fear heights cannot look straight down and hence feel more secure. According to Krishnamoorthy, building an inclusive and accessible playground costs around ten lakh rupees—about as much as the Bangalore municipality allocates for standard playgrounds.
When building the specialised playground in the city’s MN Krishna Rao Park, the approach was made wheelchair-accessible, and the area was equipped with a bell, a steering wheel, an abacus, textured tiles, and metal rods that produce a variety of tones when struck, providing activities for children with a variety of physical and mental disabilities. There are also wheelchair-friendly merry-go-rounds, tyre swings, and a Wheel-Thru Arcade—a low-mounted horizontal ladder—with pipes of different textures and widths. “Our aim was to provide multi-sensorial stimulation to all children,” Krishnamoorthy said.
Kilikili’s success has encouraged other initiatives to help special children get out and play in Bangalore, and also attracted attention beyond the city. Kilikili collaborated with residents’ groups from Mumbai, Mangalore and Nagpur to build the accessible playgrounds in those cities. A group of Bangalorean parents now organises sessions for children with and without disabilities to play together once every three months. Pratima D’sa said Gelvina, her autistic ten-year-old daughter, “became friends with a bunch of kids who come to these ‘buddy sessions,’ and they form a part of her small circle of friends.” Such camaraderie helps overcome the social barriers to play that children with disabilities face. “There is a lot of stigma attached to a child coming to play in her wheelchair,” Meera Ramakumar, whose daughter is a wheelchair user, said. Though the Ramakumars live near an accessible play area, it took them over five years to get their daughter to use it.
Krishnamoorthy said she hopes the playgrounds will remind everyone of the importance of play. Even kids without disabilities, she said, “have the burdens of academic excellence and curricula to take care of … Few parents and teachers understand the importance of play in their lives.” But as Krishnamoorthy has discovered, small steps can go a long way. For Ananth, once his fear of slides was gone, taking to other play equipment was easy, and he now goes out to play regularly. “It doesn’t take much from us to make the kids feel included,” Krishnamoorthy said, as children swung happily up into the sky.
Raksha Kumar is an independent multimedia journalist. She is currently working on a documentary film on the rationalists. She tweets as @Raksha_Kumar.