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10-year-old girl offers schoolmates a lesson in life

Ten-year-old Elizabeth McCormick may never get to enjoy the fruits of her labors firsthand as a student of Colonial Village Elementary School, but the legacy she will leave when she graduates to middle school next year will be as lasting and visible as all outdoors.

When Elizabeth broke her knee in third grade last year, she quickly gained the perspective that many children who are disabled have to live with every day.

She learned right away that several of the physical activities that she once took for granted were too difficult or impossible for her to enjoy.

The big problem was the playground at Colonial Village.

Even though her good friend from Girl Scouts, Dina White, would push her in her wheelchair to the playground, she was very limited in what she could use. The playground was not handicapped-accessible. There is only grass between the parking lot and the playground.

"There is no path," said her mother, Melanie. "She was always stuck away from the group. She could not use the whole playground, only the swing."

Her father, Brian, said Elizabeth was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after birth but has progressed and overcome most of her balance and motor-skills issues, and is "doing excellent" now. Once, she needed a walker to ice skate but today gets along fine without one, he said.

Frustrated because she could not participate in all of the playground options -- including the rock wall and monkey bars -- Elizabeth outlined her dilemma in a letter that was circulated among her classmates on the bus and eventually found its way to the Niagara Wheatfield School Board.

"You're handicapped," she wrote. "It's your first day of school. In the middle of the day, your teacher announces your class is going outside. When you arrive, you realize that the playground is not handicapped-accessible. What do you do? You head for the swings because it is the only thing you can do on the playground."

The letter, which went on to say how much the district would improve if all its playgrounds were handicapped-accessible, was given to Elizabeth's teacher, Shawn Siddall, and later to the School Board.

A big part of the $11 million in capital projects approved by voters in September will be dedicated to renovations at Colonial Village, including recreation items and property drainage and grading, along with a new parking lot. Open access to recreational facilities and the environment was a key theme for the referendum.

Del Ambrosia, Niagara Wheatfield's director of facilities, said access to the school's playground was one of the needs cited by the parents association, which funded the special climbing wall this year.

"We need more accessibility to the playgrounds, not just at Colonial Village but throughout the district," he said. Although many of the details are still undecided, he said he plans to meet with parents groups, teachers and engineers to determine the issues at each school.

Better accessibility would come through basic planning for items such as proper landscape slopes and height of the equipment, Ambrosia said.

The actual equipment for the disabled could include hand-cranked wheels to improve dexterity and on-the-ground balance beams. All elementary playgrounds are legally required to be covered with "cushioned" wood chips to soften the impact of falls, he said.

By the time the work is done at Colonial Village, Elizabeth will be attending Edward Town Middle School, where most of her physical-education needs, based on an individual assessment of her abilities, will be addressed in a gym, not a playground.

But as her friend, Dina, explained, that really doesn't matter to Elizabeth.

"Liz had a hard time getting on the swings," Dina said, "but she mostly felt bad for the others."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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