On paper, of course I support the city’s plans to revamp its recreation centers to make them more inclusive to people with disabilities.
But as someone who has participated in plenty of looks-good-on-paper diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, I also know there is a world of difference between paper and practice — especially when institutions aren’t held accountable. Hence, the perennial reckonings.
Earlier this month, Billy Penn reported that Philly is closing the city’s only recreation center designed for people with disabilities.
Officials said the Fairmount Park building that’s home to Carousel House has fallen apart. In its place, give or take several years, will be a recreation center that serves the entire East and West Parkside communities — including those with disabilities — who have long advocated for a recreation center in their neighborhood.
Sounds good, right? I’m sure it will look good in an upcoming report, too.
But in a city that’s scrambling to repair long-neglected recreation centers, and that is years away from meeting its goal of ADA compliance, I’ve got doubts, and concerns.
Despite agreeing that the segregated mission of the center is dated, I have to admit that I was sad to hear that the nation’s only city-funded rec center for people with disabilities was closing.
While I can’t argue with the sorry state of the building, I also can’t argue with Carousel House staffers who say institutional neglect is why a building built in 1987 was in such bad shape.
And what Carousel House lacked in aesthetics, it more than made up for in community. Before COVID-19, it was the regular monthly meeting spot for the support group for paralyzed gun-violence survivors. It wasn’t uncommon for someone from the wheelchair basketball teams playing nearby to wander into the room where we gathered, curious to know more about the group and no doubt lured in by the smell of good food routinely provided by the group’s facilitator.
So, I worry about the loss of those kinds of easy, organic connections, even if, compared with other centers, Parks and Rec officials said, Carousel served fewer people. And I worry about the burden placed on people with disabilities to locate and travel to programs spread out all over the city, but also to do the invisible labor of keeping the city honest in its efforts.
I still remember going to the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities years ago in search of information about resources for people disabled by gun violence and finding mostly dusty pamphlets of programs that didn’t come close to the overwhelming needs of the growing population.
The burden is always on those with the most to gain, and lose. And it’s exhausting.
Jaleel King, a longtime user of Carousel House who was also a member of the support group for paralyzed gunshot survivors, said he’s used to the half-measures historically taken by the city for people with disabilities — whether it’s parking spots placed too close to bicycle racks, rendering the space unusable for someone in a wheelchair; city employees not aware or respectful of Americans with Disabilities Act policies; or any number of city spaces that advertise as accessible but aren’t in practice.
“Everything is hindsight and then it takes so long for things to get fixed, or done,” he said.
Here’s something we can get ahead of: Let’s fold these kind of support groups into the Parks and Rec Department. Because, unfortunately, there isn’t a neighborhood in the city that isn’t affected by gun violence in one way or another.
As with most reckonings, the moment that moved the department to commit to making sure the city didn’t just have one ADA-accessible rec center occurred after Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell attended a 2018 summit for people with disabilities. To her surprise, frustration from many in attendance boiled over when she announced plans for a $1 million renovation of Carousel House.
They didn’t want to be segregated anymore, with services concentrated at Carousel House. They shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhoods to access programs and services that should already be available at every facility.
After the initial shock of nearly being booed out of the room, Ott Lovell did what any leader worth their title should do: She listened, and then she acted. An inclusion working group was formed. Staff trainings, which are ongoing, were held. An employment program with young adults with disabilities was launched. Experts from Carousel Connections, Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, and the Jefferson Center for Neurodiversity will soon release a comprehensive plan on how Parks and Rec can provide a more equitable and welcoming experience for all residents. The department will be hiring a director of inclusion services for the first time.
Sounds good, looks good, I told Ott Lovell, but we’ll see.
Actually, lots of people are watching. Anna Perng, a longtime disability advocate, was involved in the 2018 summit that sparked this reckoning. She recently wrote a compelling op-ed in The Inquirer about the efforts.
“There is a perception that inclusion means you throw people in without support, like you sink or swim,” she told me this week. “But that’s what compelled us in 2018 to say enough is enough. And part of that is holding the city accountable.”
Ott Lovell said she welcomes the accountability, and Perng and other disability advocates plan to hold her to that.
And if the progress stalls or stops, they have my number.