Our Story

Our story begins with a child. A child two years old and eager to play.

But where?

Justin and Dawn Oates’ daughter Harper was born blue, not pink and rosy-cheeked like her older twin siblings. She had a debilitating spinal cord injury at birth.

In the beginning, “she can’t walk, she can’t stand, she can’t sit by herself, she can’t eat, she can’t use her fingers,” haunted them. But as she grew they realized, “she can smile, she can talk, she can make friends, she can read, she can experience art, she can laugh and she can love.” What she could do eclipsed what she couldn’t. And she began to play.

When their twins were three, Justin and Dawn took them to the playground down the street and to summer camp. They went skiing, hiking, and bowling as a family. But with Harper, they quickly learned that “wheelchair accessible” might mean a ramp to get in, but not shared access to the equipment, her friends, or the fun.

Harper has taught the Oates to try harder, to never give up, and that despite our children’s differences in ability, they want to play. Together.

The initial barrier to inclusion is not disability, but design.

Justin and Dawn quickly realized the issue is not specialized equipment, activities, events, or facilities designed just for those with disabilities. The issue is inclusion.

Shaping activities where all children could feel included and play together became The Play Brigade’s mission. And it’s working.

We’ve already influenced the design of several local playgrounds so they have universal appeal to all children, including those whose diagnoses might otherwise leave them on the sidelines.

We’ve discovered that keeping the idea of inclusion at the center of the planning process allows everyone to brainstorm freely. To find new, more thoughtful ways to approach “typical” play. To plan for all, without catering to those with disabilities.

Our mission has since grown to include advocacy for disability equity and inclusion in healthcare and education as well as recreation as a way to preserve civil and human rights for everyone!

Every day, with every new ambassador, every new donation, and every new project, our brigade grows. We include more kids, more families, and more caretakers—the healthy ones, those with temporary injuries, and those with chronic or permanent conditions—in an inclusive world.

We invite you to join us in continuing to write and rewrite the story. In this story, exclusion loses. Life wins.