A reflection on mainstream education’s approach to supporting pupils with physical impairments – what worked well and what could improve inclusion, by Ellise Hayward.

My name is Ellise Hayward, and I just so happen to have cerebral palsy. I’ve always been very accepting of my disability and always look on the positive side of life. I am a strongminded person, I set myself goals and try my best in everything I do. My disability isn’t a barrier, I’ll always find a way. I’m forever pushing myself to be the best version of myself. Even though I might do it slower and things take me longer, I’ll get there eventually.

Like I say, ‘I’m just a girl who may need a little help.’

Improving inclusion

I went to a mainstream primary school and a mainstream secondary school. Regarding primary school, I want to start off by saying that I had some amazing teachers who understood my needs and were lovely to me. I was successful there and even became a prefect. However, I will suggest some ideas to consider if you have a student with a physical impairment, which would have improved my experiences at primary school.


If the children normally sit on the floor, make provision for your student with a physical impairment to also sit on the floor. If this is not possible, lower their supportive seating so that they are as close to the others as possible. Also, make sure the pupil with a physical impairment comes in at the same time as the rest of the students – it wasn’t very nice being wheeled
into the room afterwards with lots of eyes looking at me.

School plays

Make sure that the student with a physical impairment is included as fully as possible. Consider accessibility, such as how to get them onto the stage, how to support their movement etc. The school may need to adapt the stage by adding ramps or lowering the stage itself, if possible.

Sports day

I either felt left out, forgotten, not involved, or just embarrassed. I’ll explain why. In Reception, the crawling race and the running race were both great – parents and teachers cheered me on, and that made me feel happy. But by the time I was in Year 6, children got faster, they finished just as I would have only just started. I felt embarrassed when the clapping seemed to last forever. As lovely as intentions were, I wanted the ground to swallow me up.

Whereas, at secondary school, we had the option to choose whether we wanted to do sports day or not. If this is not possible to do in primary school, you could take advantage of organising physiotherapy time with your student or you could create alternative games, such as throwing a beanbag or kicking a ball. Ask the student what kind of activities they would be comfortable with.

Lunchtimes and in the classroom

I just sat with my assistant. It would have been nice not to feel different and have a friend with me. It’s also important to remember that what works and is appreciated at a young age, does not always work as the pupil gets older.

Good practice

When I moved to secondary school, every effort was made. I felt included, like I was wanted, so I was keen to go to school. The teaching assistants and teachers were so understanding of my needs. In secondary school, I applied to be a prefect, undertook an interview and training, and I was over the moon when I was made a senior prefect.


I sat my GCSEs at secondary school in my own room with my support assistant and an invigilator. My support scribed and read my questions for me. I was allowed regular breaks and 100% extra time. These were sufficient adjustments for me.

In the classroom

I was sat on a table with friends. My assistant set me up and was there ready to help, however, I also felt that she distanced herself so I had the opportunity to interact with friends. It was the perfect balance.

At lunchtimes and assemblies

I was able to be with friends. Nothing was too much trouble! They always had a positive can-do attitude.

The main thing was that they listened to me as a person. They asked how I felt about whatever was coming up and went out of the way for me. For once in my life, I loved school.

Helping students find and use their voice

It’s so important to listen to the individual and let them have a voice. It really is all about total communication. This includes eye pointing, hand pointing, facial expressions – and it really is about knowing your student: listening and smiling so they feel at ease and happy. I’ve always felt happiest when with one-to-one teaching assistants who I feel I can be at ease with.

I was very shy when I was younger and wouldn’t use a voice on my Eye Gaze to speak, as I didn’t like feeling different to my peers. However, when I watched Britain’s Got Talent and ‘Lost Voice Guy’ appeared, in that moment I realised there were other people out there like me and it reassured me I’m not the only one who uses a talking aid. The past few years, my secondary school and college helped me gain confidence in myself. I soon found a voice I love, which is the ‘Queen’s voice’!

I have always received support from the Physical Impairment and Medical Support (PIMS) Team, which was set up by Somerset County Council. The schools I attended have had help and advice from them on how to make the setting and its curriculum accessible. Most importantly, PIMS have supported my communication development. In the early years, I had a communication book, which made communicating quite a slow process. I was later allocated a communication device, which allowed me to have voice output, but only for certain programmed messages.

By the end of primary school, I was using the Mind Express communication software on a laptop, which meant that I could communicate my wishes and feelings a little easier. My eventual introduction to eye gaze technology has allowed me to communicate more fully and to better access the curriculum. In July of 2019, I was referred and assessed for a communication aid at Bristol Communication Aid Service where I was allocated the clever piece of equipment that I am using to write this article! (For anyone who is interested, it’s a Grid Pad 12 with Grid 3 software.) So far, thanks to the PIMS team, I have access to my emails and my mobile phone through the software. My grandparents couldn’t believe it when I phoned them for the first time. They were shocked to hear my ‘Queen’s voice’ coming out through their phone! Having my phone linked to my communication aid means I can make and receive phone calls just like any other young adult.

Top tips for supporting SEND students

Listen to the voice of a pupil with SEND to gather valuable feedback. Ask for their opinion about what works well and what could be improved in their learning.

  • Make the effort to make lessons accessible and inclusive.
  • Let them have some independence.
  • Be patient with them – a student with a physical impairment might take a little longer.
  • Use visual resources to support their understanding.
  • Give your students opportunities for success.
  • Teach your students to be their own person.
  • Break down instructions into small manageable tasks.

I would love to work with schools, colleges, universities, parents, Occupational Therapists (OTs), Speech and Language Therapists (SaLTs) and medical staff in training. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. If you need any inspiration or a motivational speaker, please contact me.


  • Ellise Hayward

    Ellise is a motivational speaker and AAC mentor who speaks to schools, colleges and universities about her experiences of living with cerebral palsy. She is keen to spread awareness and encourage inclusive behaviours for people with SEND. She is also currently studying health and social care at college.
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