Too often the handicapped must stay by themselves day after day, trapped in their problems. Unlike other people, they have few chances to work off their worries by meeting friends, running, jumping, swimming and playing. The loneliness itself becomes the greatest handicap of all.
But now, at last, the handicapped of Washington, a number unknown and unknowable, have been given a remarkable gift - what is believed to be the first municipal recreation center in the country designed especially for the mentally and physically impaired.
The District of Columbia Department of Recreation this week dedicated the D.C. Center for Therapeutic Recreation at Croissant Place and G Street SE, Anacostia. The center was designed by Kent Cooper Assoc., William Lecky partner-in-charge.
The center is made up of two buildings, eventually to be united by a canopy which will serve to protect people in wheelchairs as they get off the buses.
The larger building holds a gymnasium & auditorium, an interior court yard, two classrooms and an interior swimming pool. The smaller building is for pre-school youngsters and consists primarily of one space which can be divided.
"In most buildings for the handicapped," said Lecky, "the difference between normal and abnormal shouts: There are steps for those who can walk and ramps for those who can't. We tried to make the buildings seem to be of a piece - equal treatment for everyone.
"So both buildings are one story. There is no step between driveway and entry, only bollards (concrete posts) spaced to admit wheelchairs and block cars.
The visitor goes through sliding glass doors with a sensory device that makes them open automatically. (The other day, as these things go, the doors were busy opening for people who weren't there.)
Inside, the architects took all the corridor space and put it into one central court, a sort of town square for the building designed to encourage chance meetings and easy friendships.
"We wanted to avoid all those long corridors which are so discouraging to people. In this building, instead, there's no need for anyone to count 'four doors down and turn right.' Once in the court, they can see immediately most of the major areas.
"This helps, too, for people who aren't entirely at ease, who aren't experienced in social situations. They can look through the glass doors from the courts to the classrooms until they feel comfortable about going in."
The interior court, the greatest joy of the building, has a circle of stepped seats, sort of a concrete conversation pit. Bollards at the top keep wheelchairs from going down unexpectedly into the pit, and also provide seats.
The gymnasium as well as the swimming pool natatorium have built-in seating alcovers with lowered ceilings and sheltering walls to give a feeling of security to the new participant.
The swimming pool has a ramp into the pool for wheelchairsand a guard rail to fence off the deep water. There are also removable exercise rails. The pool deck slopes toward a drain to prevent puddles. There is a wading pool with more bollards making a sculpture for children.
All the hardware on the public rooms are the push-pull variety easiest to handle. Conventional knobs are used on storage and mechanical rooms so even the blind can easily tell what is not open to them.
Brick paving around the building stops to warn of a danger area. Unfortunately in the back of the building, by a play area, a steep hillside still stands without any guard railing.
The architects had a great deal of help on the program requirements from the Department of Recreation's Helen Jo Hillman, director of programming Charles Butler, the building director.
The architect's statement points out, "Those who will use this place often lead quite restricted lives. Many have been shuts-ins for much of their time. The center has therefore been designed to be a place of liberation, both physically and psychologically.
While the exterior of the building is quite clam, almost introverted in its appearance, upon entering one finds the interior to be an exciting expanding space where energy can be unleashed and new worlds can be conquered. Often the boundaries between indoors and outdoors seem to be dissolved, yet the center has been designed as a square and profective environment for its users."
Not all these claims seem to be 100 per cent true. Indeed from the outside the building is calm, secure, but fortress-like. It doesn't all-together invite you in.
The brick is pleasant enough. The mansard roofs (the arhitects prefer to say gently sloping) minimze the 25-foot height necessary to provide gym space. But the city government is so concerned with vandalism, after their years of experience with broken windows, that the lack of fenestration does give the building a foreboding air.
Inside, the court, with glass interior doors, does give a feeling on openess and space. THe clerestory windows bring in light. But there are only three or so places in the entire building where the visitors can look out at the pleasant grass and trees. Otherwise the view is only of concrete block walls, though many are painted brightly.
One would hope that the handicapped would get to have many opportunities to play on The mini-golf course, cleverly arranged for use by people in the wheelchairs, and perhaps to simply enjoy being with their friends outside.
The building seems too much concerned with the maintenance division's definition of security and not enough with opening up vistas the outside world for the handicapped. Still these are only carping noises. Because what is important is that the center has been built, and in the main it is as good and as welcoming as any we have ever seen.
And for those who have spent their days in loneliness, the building will seeem very close to paradise.