Access to recreation is vital to Philadelphians’ health, wellbeing 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. 

The Carousel House facility opened in 1987 to deliver on this belief. Celebrated at the time, the Carousel House offered people with physical disabilities an accessible, purpose-built facility. 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 three decades.

Over time conditions at Carousel House changed, and so did national best practice on the best way to offer recreation services to people with disabilities or neurodivergence. Today, Parks & Rec joins disability rights advocates, educators, and recreation professionals across the country in working toward a parks and recreation system where all members of the community can access and enjoy all aspects of the Parks & Rec system in their neighborhood rec center.

This means offering adaptive and inclusive programming at more sites in every area of the City

This will be a continual process to offer programs that are inclusive of all populations, as well as providing people with disabilities the choice to engage in programming that is specifically targeted to them. The goal is for an individual with disabilities to be able to participate in recreation programming closer to home, rather than having to travel to one segregated site in the city.

 Rec For All: Planning for an Inclusive and Adaptive Recreation System

In early 2019, Parks & Rec formed an inclusion working group including staff, leadership, advocates and external community partners. This group created an initial framework for how Parks & Rec could make recreation programs more relevant and innovative for people with disabilities across the city. Highlights of progress to work to date includes:

  • Employment pilot for young adults with disabilities at recreation centers with job duties that match their strengths through customized work opportunities. In the spring 2019, four recreation centers were identified as pilot program site locations. They are Rivera Rec (Kensington), Kendrick Rec (Roxborough), Francisville Rec (Francisville), and Tarken (North East). Through community engagement and working with JEVS Human Services, staffing needs and site-specific work plans were developed in partnership with recreation staff at that facility, program partners, and participants.
  • New training to ensure staff are equipped to support all residents, and provide a welcoming experience that facilitates a sense of belonging. New trainings for recreation staff include mental health first aid; conflict resolution; and working with immigrant communities. Hundreds of summer camp staff also received training on inclusive topics like person-centered language, de-escalation techniques, sensory differences, self regulation techniques when working in groups and with individual campers.
  • Parks & Rec’s Inaugural Inclusion Summit, took place in fall 2019 through a partnership with advocates, the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities, and the Eagles Autism Foundation. The summit was attended by more than 150 recreation staff, and provided an opportunity for information and resource sharing, as well as training sessions on creating inclusive recreation centers and concrete tools for recreation leaders to put into practice.
  • An inclusive youth programming pilot is underway to offer inclusive and adaptive youth athletics and recreational activities at sites across the city, including: an inclusive skating program and ice hockey league; blind karate; and inclusive after-school programming, to name just a few.

A Blueprint for Inclusive Recreation

Informed by the inclusion working group, last year Parks & Rec publicly posted a request for proposals seeking qualified disability and neurodiversity experts to help us develop a system-wide blueprint to building inclusive and adaptive recreation services across the city. Led by local and national experts from Carousel Connections, Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, and the Jefferson Center for Neurodiversity, the team is finalizing a comprehensive plan on how Parks & Rec can provide a more equitable and welcoming experience for all residents.

The inclusion plan will be released this summer, and will build on the successful inclusive programs and pilots currently underway at rec centers throughout the City. The plan is built around a set of commitments that focus on community engagement (including Self Advocates or individuals who identify as having a disability), staff training, and effective inclusive practices. The plan is informed by a diverse group of stakeholders, including the Inclusion Working Group, experts, and advocates all working toward making every rec center a welcoming place for all residents.

The Carousel House Facility

Parks & Rec was encouraged when Carousel House was approved to receive a multi-million dollar investment through the Rebuild program. The existing Carousel House facility requires significant capital investment and has moved to a point of obsolescence. 

Unfortunately building conditions worsened over the last year, and repairs and maintenance alone could no longer address facility 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.

The new Carousel House facility will be an inclusive, accessible-to-all recreation center for the East and West Parkside communities and beyond. Rebuild plans to begin the community engagement phase of the process this year and will work closely with Parks & Rec to invite all appropriate stakeholders, including the Carousel House Advisory board and community members who have used the Carousel House in the past. 

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 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 this transition.

Check here for updates on relocated Carousel House programs.