Even though she’s 34 now, Tonya Rivera still has vivid memories of playing on playgrounds when she was a little girl.
Mom holding her on her lap as she soared on the swings.
Dad carrying her to the top of the slide and Mom scooping her up when she reached the bottom.
And often, when her parents had tired, sitting in her wheelchair off to the side and watching her sister play with the freedom and independence that able-bodied children enjoy.
“I was that child watching her little sister swing and wishing there was a swing for her,” Rivera tells me when we get together on a hot afternoon at a community center near the airport. “I know there’s that child wishing the same thing.”
The voice that speaks the words doesn’t belong to Rivera. It’s a recorded woman’s voice like you’d hear on your GPS or like Siri on your iPhone. Rivera forms sentences by tapping a button on her headrest with the side of her head to pick out words and letters as they scan across a screen mounted on her wheelchair.
Picking out the words is a laborious process, but Rivera has anticipated my questions and prepared answers she can quickly activate with a tap of her head.
We’re talking about her “Every Ability Plays Project,” which envisions playgrounds with specialized equipment that can provide disabled children – kids with mobility issues or blindness or anything else that might pose obstacles to using what Rivera calls “everyday” playground equipment – a way to play alongside kids without disabilities.
It’s an idea that has collected partners from across the city.
Marcus Sanchez met Rivera at VSA Arts of New Mexico, the inclusive arts center where he works and where Rivera spends her days.
“She came to me on a Friday,” Sanchez remembers. “She was like, ‘I have this idea.’ ”
The idea blossomed into Every Ability Plays and a push to raise money for equipment and awareness of the need. And if Rivera’s most ambitious dream comes true, it will result in a wheelchair slide that cracks the problem of how to get the chair from the top of the slide where it drops off its slider to the bottom of the slide to pick her up.
Meanwhile, Rivera is trying to drum up money. From whom?
“Mr. Johnny Depp, Ellen DeGeneres, Charlie Rose and Thalia (the Mexican singer),” she tells me. She’s also reached out to Wallis Annenberg, the president of the philanthropic Annenberg Foundation after seeing a TV spot about a universally accessible treehouse in Torrance, Calif., that Annenberg funded.
After she saw the TV piece, she said, “I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we have something like that in Albuquerque?’ ”
Rivera was born with cerebral palsy and has never been able to walk or talk. She graduated from Valley High School and, as an adult, has taken on leadership roles in teaching dance to young people with disabilities and participating in dance performances.
She has traveled to Chicago and Washington, D.C., for events and is applying for scholarships to attend leadership conferences to further her work among the disabled.
“My daughter still amazes me, even at this age,” her mother, Lupe Rivera, tells me when I ask about the Every Ability Plays Project.
Her mother’s role is confined to fetching letters off the printer and putting them in envelopes and getting them in the mail for her daughter. Rivera does everything else with her scanning DynaVox machine.
Albuquerque, which was recently named the second-best city in the country for wheelchair users by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, already has a head start in achieving Rivera’s dream.
At the Loma Linda Community Center on Yale SE, the city of Albuquerque has an award-winning playground designed to accommodate handicap access.
A long, elevated rubber ramp takes a wheelchair to the top of a sunken playground, allowing an out-of-chair scoot down a slide. From the bottom, the slider faces the challenge of how to get up again for another go.
The city of Albuquerque’s therapeutic recreation program puts on programs for about 350 kids at four sites around the city, but it’s based at Loma Linda, so the playground gets a lot of use.
Maggie Silva, the program’s supervisor, took me to a stretch of pavement and grass nearby where the city parks department has committed to building a new adaptive playground filled with equipment designed to allow kids with disabilities a better playground experience.
The playground will be completely wheelchair-accessible and will incorporate specialized equipment that allows kids with mobility problems and other disabilities to play alongside everyone else – a big swing contraption, a roller slide and a tactile climbing wall.
“The idea is to be inclusive,” Silva said. “When they’re playing together, they don’t see a person with a disability; they just see another child. You even the playing field.”
Barbara Baca, the director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, told me the city has $120,000 for the $200,000 project. That leaves $80,000 to make up before construction can begin.
“It’s really a concept right now, but it’s something we’re excited about,” Baca said. “We’re really committed to building it.” And Rivera is just as committed to raising the $80,000 shortfall.
Rivera told me through her Siri-like DynaVox, “If I can make this dream park for children with disabilities happen, I will be able to leave a mark on this earth.”