My name is Heidi, I live in the Philadelphia area with my husband Paul and my son Michael who just turned six in December. We love staying busy and enjoying all the attractions around us, my son Michael really loves being outdoors, especially anything doing with water or digging in the dirt.
As Michael has grown, we realized that community was very important to us, we never really thought about inclusion until it was apparent that his disabilities potentially could impact where he would go to school and places we would like to go. We had to consider and plan as my son transitioned from a stroller to a walker, but very early on we learned that this would not hinder where my child would go. More importantly Michael taught us that lesson first, he was intentional and committed to exploring his world and from an early age we took him anywhere and everywhere. I particularly loved when others were as committed to figuring out a way with us!
One place that has been very special for us has been Kids at Play, a sensory gym located in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. We have been going there since Michael was two. They have a variety of services, but the gym is a great place for all kids. We have done private therapy there, we have had birthday parties there, we have had our Early Intervention (EI) therapists and outpatient behavioral health services routinely meet us there for sessions, and now we use them for outpatient therapy services.
Michael has been a fixture there and many of his schoolmates and community friends we often see there. It also gives Michael an opportunity for facilitated inclusion through all of the therapists. We often see that even if Michael chooses to play independently when around other children, it’s the frequency of opportunities that matter, we have seen over time the moments we all hope for, the connection with other children, and we are happy when others see it too.
Many of the children at Kids at Play have come up over the years to look at Michael’s walker or his talker (Augmentative and Alternative Communication , or AAC device) as well as their parents. I remember several times at Kids at Play when parents of children with and without disabilities have inquired about the talker, one even stating “my nephew is non-verbal I wonder if that would help him”. It’s these kinds of experiences that not only warms my heart but also normalizes things like AAC devices.
Last year we had a particularly exciting moment, Michael had gone to Kids at Play for an Occupational therapy appointment on a day off from school. One of his classmates from Philly Pre-K (which he pushes into for inclusion), recognized him as I was pushing him in the door in his wheelchair, as it had been raining. I was working on getting his walker set up, when she pushed past me, grabbed Michael by the hand and took him into the gym. Her father and I laughed as, at school she was always very protective of Michael, often tying his shoes or making sure he had his walker, or just yelling his name down the hall repeatedly, etc. so this day was no different. Except it was, she was holding his hand, would let go, and as her father and I watched, Michael took more than 20 independent steps, more than he had ever in his life the last being more than two years prior. I joked with her dad that I was going to hire his daughter as Michael’s PT.
Over the next month Michael started walking independently and can to this day, he does use a walker for stability, but not one therapist anticipated independent walking. I was convinced that he was trying to impress his girlfriend! I think the more important part of this story is how everyone in Michael’s life, not only at Kids at Play, celebrated this milestone with us because Michael is known in his community, and that is just one of the benefits we have seen of community inclusion. I cannot say enough about Kids at Play, Julia and her staff have played a large part in Michael’s growth and it really is just a great place for all kids to play together.