The Liberty Swing allows children in wheelchairs to experience the sensation of flying back and forth.
STORY | EMMY FREEDMAN
PHOTO | EMMY FREEDMAN
You sit firmly on the leather seat and curl your fingers around the chains that suspend you. As you pump your legs and feel the air rush through your hair, it feels as though you’re soaring into the sky. You’re flying, or as close to flying as a land-bound being such as yourself can be. But this glorious, stomach-dropping sensation has traditionally been out of reach for those in a wheelchair.
But Harrisonburg has made strides to change this concept. About 15 years ago, a group of Girl Scouts approached the city’s Parks and Recreation Department with the idea to create a new public playground with updated equipment that would both meet federal standards and be more inclusive toward the city’s handicapped population.
“They came with about $20,000,” David Wigginton, the assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department, says. “I remember it was two checks and I said, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do.’”
That initial $20,000 turned into the nearly three-acre A Dream Come True Playground, located on Neff Avenue next to Sunchase apartments.
Some of the Girl Scouts’ parents worked in the school system and noticed that the city lacked inclusive play equipment that would allow children with hearing, sight or movement impairments the same opportunities as their classmates. The Girl Scouts set their sights on installing a wheelchair-accessible swing, but couldn’t find an American company that produced one.
“I mean, they had something that was like a teeter-totter that would give you a little bit of motion, but nothing that you could actually get in and swing back and forth and actually get the sensation of swinging,” Wigginton says.
Finally, they found the Australian company Devine Liberty Swing that produced exactly what they were looking for. Inventor Wayne Devine was inspired to create the swing for the same reasons the Girl Scouts were inspired to install one: it saddened him to see handicapped children unable to enjoy a playground.
When using the Liberty Swing, you roll the wheelchair up a ramp into the capsule, secure the wheels into the wheel locks, fasten the seatbelt and then lower the ramp, allowingthe capsule to swing back and forth.
“It’s really quite a thrill to see some of these people for the very first time have the feel of actually swinging in a swing,” Wigginton says. “Even adults, infants, kids in strollers, older adults who have never had that sensation of swinging.”
Devine experienced this same thrill on the day his first Liberty Swing opened in Penshurst, Australia. A woman came to the park with her 17-year-old daughter who was blind and in a wheelchair. Her daughter didn’t look happy to be there. But after Devine had safely secured her wheelchair for flight and the swing took off, the girl changed.
“Her head came off her chest and she just started to laugh and laugh as loud as she could, [and] her mother and carer burst into tears,” Devine says. “They were tears of joy as [it] was the first time that she had ever heard her daughter laugh.”
There are now over 500 Liberty Swings installed worldwide, with many located near hospitals and community housing.
“It always makes me smile and gives me a warm feeling,” Devine says.
The Liberty Swing requires a key to unlock the device, which Wigginton issues to people for free upon request. He ordered 50 keys, but soon had to order another shipment when the swing was met with immense popularity from both the community and the country at large.
“It puts Harrisonburg a little more on the map,” Wigginton says. “We had a group from North Carolina come in and were interested in doing a similar type of playground with a Liberty Swing, so I passed information on to them and I think they’re in the process of putting one in themselves.”
He suspects there are now a handful of Liberty Swings up and down the East Coast, but Harrisonburg was most likely one of the first to install one. Because of that, people have traveled from all over to viit to A Dream Come True.
Besides the Liberty Swing, A Dream Come True also incorporates sound and touch to supplement kids’ entertainment. Wigginton’s favorite aspect — and a part he personally worked on — is the sound wall. Located in the center of the park, you walk through the sound wall’s pathway, immersed in an array of noises to simulate the natural world.
“Man, I’ve seen a kid sit there for 45 minutes to an hour, sitting on the ground,” Wigginton says. “Maybe they have sight impairment or their biggest sense is hearing — they’ll just push that button for hours at a time, listening to different sounds.”
Although the park is located right next to Sunchase, which mainly houses JMU students, Wigginton reports few incidents in the park.
“They’ve been really good neighbors,” Wigginton says. “Very little vandalism or after-hours usage. And really the neighbors actually look after it pretty [well].”
In 2010, A Dream Come True won the state award for “Best New Facility.”
“Here it is, 2017, and those Girl Scouts that originally came through are now mothers and have their own children who can enjoy the playground,” Wigginton says. “So it’s kind of a nice feeling that maybe we didn’t get it done quite as quickly as we wanted to, but it is here now and it is available for the general population and it’ll be here for perpetuity as far as I know.”
Now, the sky’s the limit for everyone.