Smile Politely

Children at play: Inclusive playground coming soon to LeRoy

A group of people are in front of a new inclusive playground. Five of them are standing and RaeAnne Lindsay sits in her wheelchair in front of everyone.
RaeAnne Lindsay

This spring, LeRoy Elementary School’s 460 scholars socked away 4,000 quarters. They scribbled down questions like “What celebrities have you met?” and “Have you always been in a wheelchair?” And they eagerly awaited a visit from RaeAnne Lindsay.

A white woman with dark brown hair and a large crown on her head. She wears a black dress and a white sash with the words Ms Wheelchair USA. She is sitting against a red background.
RaeAnne Lindsay

Lindsay, who was named the 2023-2024 Ms. Wheelchair Illinois USA last fall, visited LeRoy for an assembly in early May. She answered student-crafted queries and accepted $1,000 (in quarters, of course) on behalf of The Dane Foundation, which hosts the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant. In July, the central Illinois native will travel to Ohio to vie for the national title with the platform “Inclusive Playgrounds Are For Everyone.” But first, she’ll link arms with LeRoy over a crowning achievement closer to home: a new, inclusive playground on LeRoy’s premises. 

Wheelchair navigation, access to shade, and activities to inspire the senses (think textured surfaces and musical elements) are tenets of a playspace that’s fun and engaging for everyone. Last year, Lindsay helped install a playground like this in Fisher, Illinois. 

An overhead shot of a large playground that is black, orange, and yellow with a long gray slide. it is surrounded by green grass.
RaeAnne Lindsay

LeRoy’s $120K playground project is funded in part by district resources and a $100K donation from The LeRoy Education Advancement Foundation (LEAF). It will come together via a community build event scheduled for June 21-22. (If you have construction experience and are interested in volunteering, contact LeRoy Elementary School principal Erin Conn at [email protected].) 

I spoke with Lindsay and Maggie Kirby, who teaches art at LeRoy Elementary School, to learn more. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: You two have known each other for a while! How did your friendship begin?

Maggie Kirby: RaeAnne and I met through youth group at American Lutheran Church in Rantoul. We were a few years apart, so it wasn’t until high school that we started attending the same events. RaeAnne and her family were a pillar of my most formative years. I attribute who I am to those pivotal moments and consider RaeAnne and her family my family since forever.

RaeAnne Lindsay: We have known each other for a very long time. If we get to laughing about something, I’m not sure if we could even explain it.

SP: How did you end up partners on the LeRoy playground project?

Kirby: I contacted RaeAnne in November. I knew she was super busy with Miss Wheelchair Illinois USA, but I wanted her to come to our school. She’s always been a great storyteller, and I thought our students would benefit from her knowledge and her experiences. Luckily for us, [Lindsay] said yes! And we couldn’t have planned it any better because LeRoy had been working on an inclusive playground.

A white woman in a wheelchair sits on the ramp of an orange and black playground. She is wearing a light purple t-shirt and black pants.
RaeAnne Lindsay

SP: And inclusive playgrounds are central to RaeAnne’s Miss Wheelchair Illinois USA platform.

Lindsay: It is something that’s always been close to my heart. And I’ve always wanted to be in a pageant. It’s kind of like a secret that not many people have known about me. 

Kirby: I did not know! But honestly, I’m not at all surprised. You’re that person. People are drawn to you. You speak well about all topics. And once you set your mind to something, there’s no stopping you.

Lindsay: I thought I would have a real problem picking a platform because I’m interested in so many things disability-wise. And so I threw out a couple of ideas and the inclusive playground was one of them because I had just done the one in Fisher.

SP: Why do inclusive playspaces like this matter? When we have more of them, who benefits?

Lindsay: When you think of a playground, you think of kids playing, and those kids could have a variety of disability needs. But you also have to think about the parents, the aunts, the uncles, the other cousins, the other family members, the friends. A bunch of my friends have kids, and I want to be able to interact with them on the playground.

When I was younger, inclusive playgrounds weren’t really a thing. I was always on the sidelines, because [the playgrounds were] filled with sand or wood chips or gravel, and I couldn’t even get into the majority of the playground. [Inclusive playgrounds] teach kids and adults that we’re all on the same level. We all like playing. We all love doing that kind of stuff. And to me, it just makes sense.

A large playground that is black, orange, yellow, and gray.
RaeAnne Lindsay

SP: It does make sense. Why do you think more playgrounds aren’t inclusive?

Lindsay: I can’t tell you how many times when I’m talking about something, I’ll mention whether something’s accessible, and somebody will say, ‘Oh, I never thought about that!’. That just points to why people with lived experiences — people with disabilities, disabled people — need to be more than just at the table. We need to be every part of it.

Kirby: Through and through, representation matters from the top down. We’re not all in the same place, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all have come together, whether that’s through learning or play.

SP: How are folks in the LeRoy community coming together to support the project?

Kirby: Having this to look forward to has been good for everyone. As a teacher, I’ve always noticed LeRoy’s impact in terms of engaging with the disabled community and creating accessibility for all. There’s already so much excitement and involvement from students, many of whom haven’t had the opportunity until recently to consider other people besides themselves. But now they’re aware, it’s been hitting home that we all want those options and it’s not fair that we can’t all have them.

A large playground that is black, orange, yellow, and gray.
RaeAnne Lindsay

SP: What can people in the community do to learn more or even incorporate inclusivity into their own spaces?

Kirby: I think the biggest thing to communicate is, inclusive play doesn’t need to be complicated. As long as students of all abilities are getting access, that’s the main thing.

Lindsay: I would love to talk to people who want to learn how to be more inclusive in their work environment or their schools. I find passion in just bettering the world for people with disabilities and my community and helping others open their eyes to it. When people think about self-advocating or advocating, period, they think it’s a large skill, and that’s not necessarily what you have to do. You can do small things. And if you don’t know where to start, ask someone!

If you’d like to support Lindsay’s Miss Wheelchair USA campaign, visit The Dane Foundation’s website.

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