I/DD Topics & Trends with Olenka Villareal

Olenka Villareal, Building an Inclusive Society Through Intentional Design

What exactly is an “inclusive” design and how did you become interested in this kind of work?

Olenka: Inclusive design and inclusive, anything is a term that I hope one day doesn’t even exist, because I will assume that each of us all of those joining tonight everybody wants to be included and  what that means is we’ve come to expect that different groups need different things, and when it comes to the designs, different groups need different things. When it comes to the design of public spaces and places where we gather as a community. Of course it is even more important that places are designed with all of us in mind. The many different kinds of people that exist in communities today, and inclusive design really means that you’re designing, not only for the body you’re in today, the body you’re going to grow old in or change along the way. So that is really my definition of inclusive design thinking.

I really fell into this quite organically, as many people do when they take on a social impact in their life. Mine started many years ago, when my second daughter, Ava, who’s now 20, was born, and I recognize that in my own community of Palo Alto, as I was struggling to determine what it is that Ava needed to thrive and to do the best in her life she was born with what is still an unknown variety of disciplines. But movement, swinging, being outdoors was always something that was prescribed to her, and I stumbled across the opportunity that our public playgrounds could use a little refresher, and so that’s how I came into this particular world of sort of reimagining what a public playground could be, and that brought me to the work I’m doing here at Magical Bridge. This reimagined what it might look like to have a public playground that was designed not only, of course, with a family like mine involved, which is one that has 2 children with different needs, but along the way we met a lot of different community members that were omitted from the design of something as vibrant as a community playground. So that’s how I fell into this line of work very early.

Doesn’t the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 enforce playgrounds to be inclusive of people with disabilities?

Olenka: So for those that are not as familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was really valiantly fought for by people right here in the East Bay. Judy Human, who just passed away, fought very hard for all Americans to have access to public spaces and places. In 1990, however, I do want to recognize that that was a great start, and what we need is to continue that hard work. There’s over a 1 billion people worldwide that are living with a disability. So one in every 4 people around the world have a disability and it can be visible, or it can be invisible.So what the Americans with Disabilities Act does is that it really ensures that people using a wheelchair have access to these public spaces, which naturally is very critical. But what happens is most people with a disability continue to be overlooked in the design, and in our case, you know, we were focused on the playground. So when we started the work with Magical Bridge, what we realized is that the public playground was not being designed with these various unique needs that are found in our community members. Now one in 36 people have autism right? They belong to the community, and their families want to play with people with different sensory needs, and so on. Even our older adults with different sensory needs, and so on. 

Playgrounds are indeed not incorporating the needs of varying individuals. So people with autism or those that know that children or adults with autism are very quick runners. Most of our public participants today are not fenced in, and they often are next to a busy street. Those kinds of parents and those adults rarely will find themselves in a public playground, or teens think about playgrounds as things for younger children, but, in fact, there are many people whose physical age and cognitive age don’t match right.

My daughter Ava’s one of those people, she’s 20 on the outside, but she’s no more than a one or 2 year old in the kinds of things that she’s interested in, and the way she presents. We found these kinds of things to be interesting in the sense that we recognized early on in our group that there was so much more that we could do. What makes a playground or a public space welcoming to everyone are the companion programs that you can add to them. So these are sort of the many kinds of the highlight of what we considered to be the many ways that we can do better in the design of a public playground.That’s part of the research that went into creating the first magical bridge.

How are today’s playgrounds not meeting everyone’s needs?

Olenka: You can’t even get a wheelchair across many of the current parks that have features like wood chips or uneven levels. Most of the equipment that you’ll find in a public playground is for younger children. It is limited, based on ages when we know from experience and from a lot of research that those with autism benefit from swinging into their senior years. So why are we limiting playgrounds to young children when we really want to open the possibilities of multi-generational play even for what I call adults, you probably are too young to be thinking about growing too much older. But the reality is, you know, swinging words off signs of Alzheimer’s. So there’s a lot of great benefits to movement, and we believe that everyone should have a welcoming experience in an outdoor public space.

In what ways have you seen inclusive outdoor spaces bring people together?

Olenka: So Palo Alto’s magical bridge did start organically in 2015, and that was the beginning of an adventure of communities around the nation and even the world. We didn’t have something like that and so, as such, the Magical Bridge started really with a bang we have in each Magical Bridge design we have a community gathering space, a stage treehouse playhouse which encourages community gathering. We sort of have found that Magical Bridge is serving the community like the Newtown Square that we so desperately need a place where people can get together.

We have found that typically our playgrounds are enjoying upwards of 20,000 guests a month and these people do come to play and they come to connect, listen to music. It’s a meeting place. It’s a place kind of like the last democratic institution, where, no matter what your religious background or your economic or your political views, you will come to the same community, destination, playground, to connect with people and find ways that you’re more similar. 

What are some less obvious ways inclusive playgrounds impact and influence society?  

Olenka: Well, some less obvious ways are perhaps in the fact that you know most school communities spend a great deal of time and effort in anti bullying campaigns and setting up these empathy experiences, and my favorite is kindness day or kindness week. I was thinking, well, what happens the rest of the year? It’s great to be kind for a day or 2, but you know, if you’re in a supportive environment where it is an organic experience. We have now seen with Palo Alto’s magical bridge being open 7 years. I am meeting kids that are now older, and they grew up with  Magical Bridge in their life, and we have found bullying is changing right. So? Why do people bully one another? Sometimes in middle school? Well, because they’re sometimes uncomfortable. They’re seeing behavior they haven’t seen before, and so they bully because of it. They’re just not sure what to do. If you grow up with people of different abilities, and you will see somebody on the playground, and later see them in your middle school, you may not be their best friend, but you’re probably not going to bully them because you’ve seen them. They belong in your community. You know their family. You’ve seen their family, I think the challenge in general is when these families are so isolated from everyone else, and then they resurface in some setting whether it’s in a school or you know store, and then people have not been exposed to the different members of our communities that are hiding sometimes in the shadows. That is where you know, behavior happens. That we don’t feel is very magical. So the benefits have been incredible. In that sense, there’s a ripple effect. So where Magical Bridge has placed there designed space playgrounds, we are finding a light bulb goes on right. So the city council recognizes that we thought we were doing right by these playgrounds. But now we know we’re missing some people that need to be included in programs that start to change in Palo Alto. We are thrilled that there’s this magical series of programs that are now being offered for guests of one age. However, developmental differences, you may see a class in Palo Alto which says, this is for teens that are develop mentally between 8 and 10. The awareness about the honoring of people for who they are starts to become more prevalent.

What do you find to be the most challenging part in creating these playgrounds?

Olenka: I think when we started, and even to some degree today, you know the word inclusive, the word accessible is really used. Really predominantly in much of the designs that we see and people get excited about saying their design includes playgrounds, inclusive spaces, the industry, the playground, industry also is very proud that they have all these inclusive designs but they aren’t as inclusive as they should be. Our challenge has really been in the messaging about why what we’re doing is different, and why inclusive and accessible, really needs to bring a little higher elevation to the focus of what that means. We are constantly trying to sort of help elevate the messaging.That inclusive ideally should mean everyone. We may not get it right 100%. But it sure is better to try than not to try it all. I think there is some hesitation, because the law doesn’t say you need to do it, but we’re doing it sort of. We sort of feel like we’re doing it for the right reasons, and showing by example that when you create a space for everyone, you do see everyone coming out and it ignites the local, you know, businesses in the communities. The answer to the question is really in the messaging, in the explanation that people of all abilities and ages benefit from movement, and then our playgrounds should be designed beyond just the typical. We call it cheap and cheerful. There’s a lot of benefit to creating a community gathering space where everyone comes together.

Do you think we’re heading towards a future where we’ll see more inclusive design and if not what do you think it will take to get there? 

Olenka: It sort of depends where you live in this world. But there are pockets of the world where, of course, diversity, equity, inclusion. That’s become a very important part of corporate culture and communities. We love to see that we also keep sort of raising our hands like well, but also don’t forget the group that also has varying abilities and disabilities. So I think awareness is rising. I think people with disabilities are coming forward at long last. Between their marketing power that they have the power of the wallet people with disabilities are now able to express themselves. I think that these technologies that are now available have sort of elevated a lot of people that used to not be able to participate in the world. Now with technology they can do so, perhaps in a more appropriate way for them right? So they can work from home. And so there’s a big movement right now. I think that people with disabilities are making that happen. I think parts of the world are receptive. I think that because every fourth person has a very varying disability, it’s not in us and them anymore.

Most of us have a family member that benefits from this kind of thoughtfulness. And so I think that there’s this and and also the last thing I would say is, there’s a silver tsunami that we are in the middle of which is the graying of America. Those are the individuals that also may have a different physical or developmental need ahead, and so all of these factors together are moving us forward.If the the needle is moving forward, but it will take some time, and that’s why we think the playground, even though we’d love to readesign the world to be more thoughtful for everyone but the playground is the first outdoor classroom, it’s the first place where you have the ability to impact young minds that are part of a community.We believe it becomes there and then it continues through school, and so on. So I’m hopeful. We’re getting there.

What other spaces in society do you think we need to see inclusive design? 

Olenka: Every space should have an inclusive design. I go back to that original comment. Don’t we all want to be included? Isn’t it interesting that we’ll go shopping at a Whole Foods or grocery store in Nordstrom? We don’t go to an inclusive Nordstrom and an inclusive Whole Foods. We just go to Whole Foods. So I think the designers should be thoughtful and consider the needs. I remember I had a conversation with somebody from a corporation that came out from Starbucks, and they wanted to know how we can design our spaces to be more inclusive of everyone, right? And a lot of it is just recognizing. Maybe you could invite somebody with autism to be a barista. But maybe that person, in order to do good work, will need some noise canceling headphones, and maybe there’s a need for different level counters. Or maybe there’s tactile information that could be available.

So, going down the list of as much as you can do is better than doing nothing, and then continuing to check in with your community on what you can do to be better. There is no mandate right now; the best we can do is just to continue to go back to that grassroots research and there’s no shortage of people that will share what they need to make their community more meaningful and accessible to them. What we’re doing with our little foundation at Magical Bridge is we are trying to select projects that provide that example of what happens when you do create for everyone and the new friendships that come from it. The sense of relief that families have, that there is a place they can go with their 30 year old in swing or 5 year old to teach them empathy without putting them into a classroom so I think there’s a lot of potential for better design everywhere, really.

Tell me a little bit about programming and how that makes you know this whole thing really works?

Olenka: So the physical space is great and it needs to be there. But with that comes the bonus of having reasons for people to come together right. We have each of the spaces. We always have a kindness ambassador program which is in some cases teens, that model kind behavior and do activities. We have concerts, and other times it’s the older community members that have retired and want to do something in their community that’s meaningful. Every city that we work with puts a bit of their own spin on it. But nonetheless it is something that we sort of mandate when you do a project with us, and then with that comes the sort of organic explosion of groups that want to be part of something like this. I mean it is that last frontier where it’s sort of like the multi-purpose room of life. Everybody’s welcome. You come as you are, you bring whatever interests you have, and the only rules really that apply is that when you do create something that a Magical Bridge it does need to be welcoming for everyone and thoughtfully created but the programming is just one of the most wonderful kind of side benefits of a Magical Bridge space. It is a very important component of our work.

Where are all the magical bridge playgrounds located?

Olenka: Since we started about 7 years ago, we’ve got these playgrounds operational. So we have Mitchell Park and Addison Elementary in Palo Alto, and Red Morton Park is in Redwood City. Curiodyssey is in Coyote Point. Fair Oaks Park is in Sunnyvale. Community Park is in Morgan Hill. Again with the lens of true inclusive, thoughtful design for everyone. Please stay connected with us, and the next groundbreaking we have is the Santa Clara playground, which is underway right now.

What are the benefits of promoting inclusive playgrounds? Are there any possible collaboration strategies?

Olenka: There’s been a tremendous amount of press recently about loneliness in our aging population, a sense of wanting to belong and to be more involved. We do address that in the programming and the kind of semester program, and we have movements for seniors and so on. We think it’s really magical when we can create multi-generational connections. You know many people, especially in the California area, have family members that don’t live here. So, having the dialogue, partnering our ambassadors, together with young and older adults, is wonderful. Beyond that it’s just that it is a place that on any given summer evening, when we have concerts, you do see all ages interacting and dancing, and just having a good time. I’m excited that we can move these playgrounds into more of a multi-generational variety, and have even been approached by some groups to create an adult only playground, but we haven’t quite had most of our all of our equipment, which is open to all of us. If we went on a magical bridge, we’d be able to play on every single piece of equipment.

What do accessible features look like at the playground and at the LSA homes?

Dana: We think that inclusivity looks like having access,which  begins with creating ways for people to get in and out and around in an Lsa home that makes it easy for them. We also think of having open spaces and trying to configure them in a way that encourages people to gather and not isolate themselves. So making things accessible, encouraging people to have spaces where they can. Connect and get together much the same as Olenka explained as the gap, the purpose of having a gathering space.

Olenka: We continue to research often to make each playground more welcoming, more accessible, but you know, when you think of a public playground, many of you might think of those structures that are literally in the rubber and the ground. Those are very very kind of easy to put in, but they omit a lot of things so for us what we found is the accessibility includes the layout. So each magical bridge is divided up into zones that reflect sort of the developmental milestones that each of us, regardless of our you know, the speed of moving through different milestones. We each need to do that. There’s feedback that we need to our brains and to our bodies to determine the muscle and the coordination and their sensory seekers. People that need that feedback, and then there are sensory avoiders, people that need to get away from the noise. When we think about the layout, the colors, the sensory elements, the shade I mean, there’s so many things that go into sort of a magical bridge, and we also have advanced technology and music innovations, right? Because many people in our world, which I say are well-being people with disabilities, rely on technology. We also have an innovation and music zone, and each magical bridge so the question of what makes accessibility important to us really is multi-faceted because it’s not just physical. And it’s a balance, right? So what do you do? That is appropriate for one group. It is not off putting to another group, and so they are the secret of, I guess, trying to get it right. We were surprised along the way that there are many things that are not thought through. For instance, signs. This is a small example, but in Redwood City we did these new kinds of tactile signs that are for low vision and blind guests, and we were looking for what is the industry standard? Do you put a QR code? Do you do, Braille? It’s amazing that there isn’t a lot of consistency yet. That’s because it hasn’t been legally mandated. So we show by example what’s possible. But it isn’t always 100%. We continue to evolve and are a bit of a work in progress. We are also in the Al learning lab all the same time. So stay tuned, and there’ll be more more coming sooner about all that.

 How do you collaborate with designers or university students for creative ideas?

Olenka: We do a lot of good work with Stanford in particular, because they’re local, and we participate in some engineering classes and design classes. We love working with students with university students because it does open up their minds. We think, no matter what they do in their life, to let them know that there isn’t need to consider everyone in their design, whether it’s a playground or a product or a program, there’s a lot of people that benefit from all of that. We wish we had more hours in the day, because that is what really fills my heart with tremendous joy to be able to work with young people and students, and we’d like to have time to do more of that.

What can people do to help Magical Bridge and help along this process?

Olenka: With disabilities we’ve taken on the playground, I invite everybody to do something. It doesn’t have to be monumental, but it can be as simple as going to your city and saying we’d like to see more thoughtful programming in our city. We’d like to have a program that considers adults that might not have something at the moment to do. Or certainly we’re happy to talk to cities that are interested in bringing a magical bridge that’s always by example, showing that there are many people that enjoy this type of community outdoor space come and volunteer with us. If you’re looking for something fun to do, it’s a pretty fun group, and you can pick a city that appeals to you if you’re musically talented, you want to join us for our summer concert series. You can get a hold of me, but you know mostly we just would love to see you on the playgrounds. We appreciate the warm words and just thinking about thoughtful consideration of everyone is really where our mission lies.

What’s been the most difficult part of carrying out the mission of Magical Bridge and or LSA Homes?

Olenka: The most difficult part for me has been the interest that we receive, that we can’t get to so cannily. We do get approached by far more groups than we can take on, and so we are moving now in the direction with some very wonderful board members of our own and our team to create sort of a different way, to expand magical bridges, work in the world without the heavy sort of lift from our foundation. If you will, because we do feel that we can do more. So we’ve been limited essentially by our ability to get to the communities that we would like to really.

Dana: It’s the fact that the demand for Lsa Homes outstrips the supply. We’ve worked very hard, thanks to community support, to add LSA homes over time. Our goal is to add one a year. But you know that’s not keeping up with the need. It certainly frustrates me but we just keep our heads down and keep working as hard as we can towards that goal of adding, adding homes.

There are some people that exclude children with invisible disabilities at normal playgrounds because they do not understand the concept of what an invisible disability looks like, or is, how would you improve the situation or promote the concept i’m assuming inclusiveness for the public?

Olenka: That is really at the core of what Magical Bridge does. If you include everyone in your space, everyone feels like it has been designed with them in mind, many times I’ll talk to students, and I say, I now have a visible invisible, invisible disability. Right now it’s invisible right? So I’m wearing contact lenses. You don’t know that I don’t see anything, but when I put on my glasses.

You don’t see anything right? So these are messages that we have expected so these are messages that we have expected, which is, if you have some things that’s clearly different about you. It must mean that that’s clearly different about you. It must mean that, you know, you have a certain disability, and that’s not always right either. So I think what we try to do with our spaces is shift. The narrative that you know many, many people are in need of different supports for their enjoyment of outdoor time, which translates really to every possible part of their life. We can only do this at the moment. The playgrounds with Magical Bridge come to that awareness right every time. We do a magical bridge project, it really goes through the community, and the awareness increases, so in that community, in the schools there is a heightened sense of acceptance. We also rely on families, and everyone to be part of that mission whenever possible.It’s probably a more complicated situation but the world needs to sort of become more aware that disabilities are also invisible. You need to have the same level of consideration.

How influential is LSA and Magical Bridge, at creating a more inclusive society?

Dana: We try our best to be good advocates, to practice what we preach. One of my proudest moments is partnering with a magical bridge and working with our residents to create art that could become part forever of one of the magical bridge parks. Looking for projects and actively pursuing getting people out into the community and being visible but it’s not easy and the job never finishes. So yes, I think we try very well to make it part of our fabric and part of what we do every day in our mission, which is to provide homes for these individuals that will allow them to live their best, possible life, and we believe that certainly is an inclusive life.

Olenka: Magical Bridge doesn’t need to be on every corner, but certainly in each community to be able to have a place where you could go, and you don’t have to drive for 3 hours to come with your family to a public playground. I mean, life is already quite challenging when you have somebody with a disability that you’re caring for. So just to take that joy of being part of your public playground away or not even offer that. You see 50 public parks around your community, and you realize not a single one of these is right from my family, right? The message needs to be that you know. Sure, not every park has to be exactly inclusive, but certainly there needs to be more of them, because there are a lot of families that benefit from thoughtful design, and as I was starting Magical bBridge, I’d say 90% of the people that helped me with families that did not have anyone in their immediate family, with the disability. They said to me, “I want my kids to play with your kids and I want my kid to get to know Ava and understand that she’s part of the community.” So I think a lot of organic lessons evolve from places like Lsa in the community and Magical Bridge in the community.

What advice would you give to someone or a group looking to support or create a park like a magical bridge?

Olenka: I’m happy to talk to anybody about bringing one of these playgrounds into their own communities. It usually starts with the awareness and the need for a place like this. Typically, then you do an outreach, either to the city council, the city manager and I will tell you for a fact that each of the magical bridge projects that we have done and continue to do are very very popular with local elected officials. They really love to put their name on a project like this. The first step is to go to your local, you know Parks, and Rec Director, city management, and find the champion that gets it. You need one of these in your community, and once you get some trackaction sometimes that we have a group coming out the whole group from Denver is coming out to visit next month. They’ve never seen a Magical Bridge, but they’re gonna be putting one in. Show Intel is always great, seeing it is the best way to experience it. But if anybody would like to reach out for more, I’m happy to talk to you about it.

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