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Legacy of Local Musician Jeff Healey to Play On in Accessible Park

A swing with extra support at Oriole Park, one of only two playgrounds in Toronto built with accessibility in mind. The third one, Jeff Healey Park, will focus on music. (see image at link below)

Jennifer Pagliaro
Staff Reporter

As a boy, Jeff Healey loved to play in grassy Woodford Park in the city’s west end.

The blind boy who would grow up to be one of Canada’s legendary jazz, blues and rock musicians grew up on Bonnyview Dr., across from the park where he liked to toboggan in the winter.

After he died of cancer in 2008, the city renamed the park in his honour at the urging of family, friends and the local community. Now they’re raising money to build a modern, accessible playground where children with disabilities can feel at home and share the joy of making music that Healey loved so much.

With a conservative goal of $20,000, Healey’s friends held a benefit concert at the Sound Academy on April 12, featuring bands like Juno award-winners Monkeyjunk and The Guess Who’s Randy Bachman.

“As important as Jeff was to the musical community in Toronto he was at least as or more important to the disabled community,” said Rob Quail, Healey’s childhood friend and former bandmate.

Healey and a group of friends have been working with the city to design a playground for children of all abilities, including those with perceptual or learning disabilities, in Jeff Healey Park. They hope to incorporate tactile and musical elements like a xylophone and percussion instruments so local kids can jam together.

“The concept is to have a section of the park with a rubberized surface that wheelchairs can easily roll on, and various instruments arranged around that area,” Quail said.

The large instruments will be mounted in the ground and will incorporate tubes that would allow kids on different sides of the playground to talk to each other.

Quail said they don’t want to alter the existing jungle gym, since it already incorporates accessible elements.

The focus on music will make the park unique in the GTA, which is home to two other playgrounds built with accessibility in mind — Earl Bales and Oriole parks.

Like those projects, plans for Jeff Healey Park are developing in partnership with city architects at Parks, Forestry and Recreation.

Accessible playgrounds have yet to become the standard in the city. The city is waiting for the province to finalize building guidelines under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which won’t be fully implemented until 2025.

Michael Schreiner, manager for capital projects and parks development for the city said Toronto has more than 800 playgrounds and aims to build eight to 10 a year at $125,000 each.

“We do community consultation on everything,” Schreiner said. If a community asks for accessible equipment like chair swings that support children with limited mobility, it can be worked into the design, he said.

Neshama Playground in Forest Hill’s Oriole Park and the playground at Earl Bales Park in York Mills were exceptional cases, Schreiner said, where private donors contributed between $700,000 and $1 million.

More city playgrounds could be retrofitted under the disabilities act guidelines, but Schreiner said the city will have to wait to see what they entail before designing a new playground strategy.

Kathryn Underwood, assistant professor at the School of Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University, said accessible play spaces are critical for childhood development.

“We need multiple inclusive environments for children to do well,” she said. “For young children, play is tremendously important in their development.”

Quail said he hopes the park stimulates conversations about his friend Healey and lets his story play on.

“This is really about celebrating what can be accomplished if someone has the talent and determination, regardless of whether they have physical limitations,” he said.

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