Opinion: Rec for all: Building an inclusive recreation system for Philadelphia

City officials respond to reporting on the closure of Carousel House in Fairmount Park.

A father and son participate in the Autism Skate Night at Tarken Recreation Center in the Northeast

A father and son participate in the Autism Skate Night at Tarken Recreation Center in the Northeast

Courtesy Philly Parks & Rec

Billy Penn recently reported the closure of the Carousel House facility and its impact on how people with disabilities and neurodivergence access recreation in Philadelphia. Here, Parks & Rec officials provide more details, and their view of the situation.

Access to recreation is vital to Philadelphians’ health, well being and sense of belonging. All residents, including those with physical disabilities and neurodivergence, deserve the opportunity to learn, play, and grow in safe spaces alongside their neighbors.

This is why Parks & Rec is taking a neighborhood based approach to adaptive and inclusive recreation programming, and transitioning away from segregating programs for people with disabilities to a single site.

When the Carousel House facility opened in 1987, it was a milestone. A purpose-built facility to serve people with physical disabilities was welcomed by the communities it served. From popular tournaments like wheelchair basketball and Braille Bingo to socials and summer camps, Carousel House was the center of an active community serving Philadelphians with physical disabilities for the next few decades.

But over time conditions at Carousel House changed, and so did best practice on recreation opportunities for people with disabilities or neurodivergence. Today, Parks & Rec joins disability rights advocates, educators, and recreation professionals across the country to work toward a parks and recreation system where all members of the community can access and enjoy recreation near where they live.

To deliver on this commitment, the new Carousel House will be an inclusive facility that meets the needs of people with disabilities, while also serving the entire East and West Parkside communities, who have been advocating for a recreation center in their neighborhood for decades.

The Carousel House facility

Due to the Carousel House’s extensive capital needs, the city has committed to a multi-million dollar investment, through the Rebuild Program, to improve recreation facilities in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, building conditions at Carousel House have worsened over the last year, and repairs and maintenance alone could no longer address persistent issues that require major capital investment to resolve. As a result, the Carousel House is no longer safe for public occupancy, particularly for a population that is more physically vulnerable.

Rebuild will begin the community engagement phase of the process this fall. The Carousel House Advisory Council and program participants, as well as the entire East and West Parkside communities, will be invited to be part of the Rebuild process.

A blueprint for inclusive recreation

The promise of a unified, inclusive-to-all Carousel House facility is only possible because of the work Parks & Rec has undertaken alongside advocates, experts, and those with lived experience to create a blueprint for delivering a neighborhood-based inclusion model for recreation in Philadelphia.

In partnership with local and national experts like Carousel Connections, Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, and the Jefferson Center for Neurodiversity, the Parks & Rec inclusion plan will be released this summer. The plan will build on the successful pilots currently underway at rec centers throughout the City. These pilot programs include:

  • An employment program for young adults with disabilities to work at recreation centers with job duties that match their strengths through customized work opportunities.
  • New training for recreation center supervisors and summer camp staff in topics like person-centered language, de-escalation techniques, sensory differences, self regulation techniques when working in groups and with individuals; mental health first aid; and conflict resolution.
  • A neighborhood-based program model for people with disabilities and neurodivergence that brings inclusive and adaptive youth athletics and recreational activities to pilot sites across the city, including: an inclusive skating program and ice hockey league; blind karate and deaf Taekwondo; and inclusive after-school programming, to name just a few.

Looking ahead

We share the sense of loss for the Carousel House’s history, yet remain incredibly optimistic about the opportunity to build a more equitable and accessible recreation system. We are optimistic about the results of our pilot programs and new training supports, which have already resulted in more inclusive programming coming to every part of our city.

This summer and fall, all Carousel House programs will be relocated and offered at other rec centers. Parks & Rec is putting great effort into matching programs to other facilities that cater to the needs of the Carousel House community. The familiar faces of Carousel House staff will greet program participants and support them through the transition.

Visit this link for continued updates and schedules on relocated Carousel House programs.

Visit this page for updates on the Rebuild project at Carousel House.

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