Treloar school designs for special educational needs

Materials World magazine
10 May 2019

Bespoke objects are helping SEN children and young adults live a more independent life.

Just as in any field, careful material selection may influence the effectiveness and usability of equipment designed specifically for children and adults with special needs.

Treloar School & College, Holybourne, UK, is a special school and college designed for people aged two-25 years with complex physical disabilities and a range of learning abilities. The school has 171 students, 98% of which use a wheelchair and 44% use a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

Treloar Assistive Technology (AT) department makes or modifies devices so students can maximise their level of independence and comfort. The seven-person machine workshop receives two main streams of work – one to repair or make adjustments to wheelchairs and equipment, the other to respond to referrals from therapy teams to help or enable access to computers, wheelchairs, communication devices and aids to daily living.

Occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and visual impairment professionals may be called in at times to help with the design process.

AT Senior Technician David Tigg said the materials for each application are primarily chosen for their strength, cleanability and safety. He said some students may subject massive stresses on to their equipment due to their spasms. ‘For example, the last thing we would want to see is a headrest forced backwards until it snaps and causes injury to a student, so all headrest supporting bars will be made from heavy steel tubes, one inside the other, for added strength and to allow for height adjustment,’ Tigg said.

AAC devices are mounted on wheelchairs using stainless-steel pole systems made by specialist companies, and the AT team will integrate the cabling by feeding the wires through the middle of the poles to keep them out of harm’s way.

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) may be used to make trays to support students’ lower arms or equipment on the front of their wheelchairs, stands for work sheets or headrest shapes, while nylon-based materials might be used for heavier duty applications. ‘These plastics can have all edges smoothed for safe handling and need no further finish to produce a durable and cleanable item,’ Tigg said.

ABS for protective covers of high-tech AAC device screens, and acrylic sheets that are laser cut to make keyguards for keyboards or touch sensitive screens, may help students hit the correct key or on-screen symbol more accurately. Birch plywood can be used for boxes to help children stand with assistance, which when painted, will resist splintering and be water resistant.

Tigg recently worked on a system to help a student access a tablet when he is on his bed. When in a wheelchair, the student can use his right foot – his only reliable access to independent communication and mobility – to drive the chair with one switch, and access his computer and tablet with a second. Without the new system, capability was lost when resting.

To solve the issue, Tigg folded an ABS sheet at 30 degrees and put one switch on it for the call system, and one for the tablet, with an Evasote – a type of foam – block between them, placing it at the bed’s end. This meant the student could easily swap between the two switches using his foot and avoid accidentally pushing the wrong button.

‘AT is a highly regarded and valued department within our organisation. In the last academic year, we completed more than 1,800 referrals for our students,’ Tigg said. ‘Our success in increasing our students’ access to independence, and education is often recognised by the independent health and social care regulator Care Quality Commission and Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). This is frequently reflected in their reports.’

IOM3 CEO Colin Church is a Trustee of Lightyear Foundation. To make a donation or for more information, visit Also, visit Treloar’s website at

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