Visitors to the Sloan Johnson Oso de Oro Park in Fresno, California, find themselves in a pleasant park with wide walkways, plenty of shade, and no messy sand on the paths. Park employees greet children and families as they enter, and help keep some order amidst the happy chaos of playground life. Brightly colored mazes, raised sandboxes, swings of every conceivable variety, and even a moving stream for wading all tempt visitors to stay and play. The park is an efficient use of what would otherwise be wasted land. Fresno is normally a dry city, but every few years heavy rains threaten to flood much of the town; Oso de Oro is built in one of the 150 basins built to drain the city.
Built in 1995, Oso de Oro may seem like just another park, albeit an unusually pleasant and well-maintained one. In fact, it is the physical manifestation of a new and better way of thinking about handicapped access. Every feature of Oso de Oro has been designed to allow handicapped children to play without difficulty, while preserving the full functionality of the park for able-bodied children and their families.
In planning Oso de Oro, Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District (FMFCD) officials worked with representatives from many disabled advocacy organizations as well as the city park department and community organizations to develop a new model for accessibility. The traditional model of handicapped access mandated special facilities and ramps that often kept the disabled segregated from the able-bodied. Oso de Oro demonstrates that a different model is possible, a model in which people of all physical abilities can share space in equal comfort.
More than 400,000 people visited the park in its first three years of operation, making the park both an effective community resource and an example for other facilities wishing to update their standards of accessibility. The park integrates handicapped residents into the city's society in another way; park employees are all disabled themselves, hired through a program designed to help the handicapped integrate into wider society.
Since the park's opening, nearly all neighbors report that the facility enhances their neighborhood, despite some skeptics at first. Many have even taken down their fences in order to be more open to the park. In 2004, FMFCD opened up another accessible park, Trolley Creek Park, which, along with Oso de Oro, has played a large role in garnering national attention for Fresno's efforts toward handicapped integration, encouraging other cities to follow in the city's footsteps.