What happens when you match a multi-disciplinary team from Riley Hospital for Children with Hoosier comedian and longtime late-night TV talk-show David Letterman? You get the first adaptive playground in the state. In 1986, a Riley team began the dream of building an adaptive playground at Riley Hospital. The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) was yet to be passed. And it was long before 2010 when ADA’s Standards for Accessible Design created accessibility standards for public facilities that could be enforced at the federal level.
Led by Riley Hospital occupational therapist Janet Stout, the original members of the planning team for the Riley playground represented occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing and child life. The team worked for 3½ years to develop a plan that would satisfy all the health and safety requirements of children who were Riley patients.
At that point, what they needed was someone to fund their vision, and that turned out to be Indianapolis native David Letterman, who donated funds to the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Association (now the Riley Children’s Foundation) to build what would be named the David Letterman Children’s Playground and was located on the hospital grounds near the northeast entrance (old emergency room entrance facing the Wilson Street Parking Garage) of the hospital.
The playground included a wheelchair swing, an adjustable-height basketball goal, extra-wide slides to allow a second person to assist a child, and overhead bars to develop upper-body strength. The surface of the play area was cushioned to protect children from injury if they tumbled, but firm enough to allow access for equipment such as wheelchairs and IV poles.
In 1989, a project like Riley Hospital’s adaptive playground was a trailblazer, and news media, including CNN and The Indianapolis Star, featured it in print and broadcast. Soon, accessible playgrounds began popping up at schools, parks, hospitals and zoos around the country. Riley Hospital’s renovation and expansion of the hospital’s emergency department required removal of the playground in 2003 but by then, the impact of the David Letterman Playground had already been realized outside of the hospital.
In 2017, country singer Garth Brooks dedicated Riley’s current outdoor playground. --Compiled by Riley Hospital Historic Preservation Committee; photos courtesy of IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives and Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Bernard Gotfryd