The story began with a simple game of chess.
“I was playing chess with a child with special needs who was sitting in a wheelchair at my club a year ago. When I asked him whether he liked playing chess, he pointed at his brother who was playing in the kids’ area amid the children’s screams and shrieks of laughter,” remembers Khaled Mustafa, a former president of Rotary Alexandria Rameleh.
“He said nothing more, but the message was clear, right there in front of my eyes. That was the moment when I suddenly understood what he was thinking and what he wanted the most. I told myself we had not done enough for such children.”
The ten-year-old boy had done nothing but point at the other children, but the message was clear enough for all to understand the needs of children with special needs and their desire to have a suitable playground to play in and have their own share of happiness.
“After this, I started to coordinate with other members of the club in Alexandria, the Alexandria governorate and the Ministry of Youth and Sports to make this simple idea into reality,” Mustafa said. “We also wanted to make it a project that would inspire others,” he added.
The main challenge was setting up the project from scratch, and there were no examples of other parks for children with special needs in Egypt. So, the club had to plunge into the idea with nothing but a desire to innovate. Even so, less than a year later, Alexandria had its own park for children with special needs, the first of its kind in Egypt and the second in the Middle East after the United Arab Emirates. It was founded and built by Rotary Alexandria Ramleh, an affiliated club of Rotary Egypt.
The park is designed to be accessible to all children and people with physical disabilities. There is a range of swings, including a basket swing that children can access while sitting in a wheelchair, and socialise with others. Other facilities include an accessible bathroom with adult-sized changing tables. The pathways throughout the playground are designed for easy wheelchair access, and there is nearby accessible parking.
Public playgrounds for children with physical disabilities can be a challenge for designers. However, they provide important opportunities for physical development, mental growth and emotional and social intelligence, and they help such children to be included in society. However, for this to happen, it is necessary that playground facilities are designed in such a way that they can be properly enjoyed by children with special needs.
“We wanted to establish a park that would be safe and entertaining,” said Walid Hassan, an engineering consultant. Hassan was one of the main supporters of the project, and he led the designs of the park.
“We tried to make sure that the dimensions of the park and its six playing units would suit Egyptian children. Then we suggested designs to manufacturers. We tried to find a way to reduce maintenance costs, and today all the playing units are of Egyptian origin and of Egyptian materials that suit our climate, our circumstances and primarily our children,” he added.
The park is located at the Nasr Youth Centre “Ambrose” in the Moharrem Bek district of Alexandria, where there was already a children’s park that had been exploited and misused. The club repaired the park and renovated all its playing units. In addition, it started planning the new project in a neighbouring area inside the park on an area of around 600 square metres.
Though the park is just two months old, it has already inspired many local and international organisations to adopt similar ideas. “In collaboration with the Ministry of Sports and Youth, we will now also provide two units in five parks for children with special needs in different youth centres in Alexandria,” said Salaheddin Eid, project manager of Rotary Alexandria Ramleh.
The project has received plaudits from neighbouring Rotary clubs in Jordan and Lebanon. These have expressed their willingness to create parks for children with special needs in their own countries. “This was one of the goals of the project: we wanted to spread the idea so that we could help to make more kids happy,” Mustafa told the Al-Ahram Weekly.
The project cost around LE250,000 to create. “However, for this cost these children now have the right to play and to spend time outdoors in a place where they can find peace and joy,” Mustafa added.
The park will now be officially inaugurated in October by Ashraf Sobhi, the minister of youth and sports, who is keen to emphasise the importance of similar projects to promote the inclusion of children with special needs on a wider scale across Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly