Learning Disability Nursing – now what’s that all about?

By Helen Laverty (Professional Lead Learning Disability Nursing, University of Nottingham)

Over the last 100 hundred years the history of learning disability nursing has been littered with rumour, mystery and prejudice:

  • There’s no future in it; you are not real nurses; you don’t need to be very clever to do it; you don’t need nurses to care for people with a learning disability
  • It only happens behind high walls and closed doors; it’s only about ‘warehousing people’, there’s no future in it
  • It doesn’t take a nurse to care for someone with a learning disability, anyone can do it

So what is a learning disability nurse? He or she is an individual with a passion to ensure people with a learning disability get what you and I take for granted. The learning disability nurse is a highly skilled individual who has undertaken a university programme leading to both an academic qualification and professional qualification in nursing the individual who has a learning disability.

What do learning disability nurses do?

They work in a range of settings across a lifetime continuum to facilitate lifestyle choices for individuals, their families and significant others. Those settings could be in a large general hospital to ensure a smooth pathway for someone through the scary world of health care (Health Facilitators). They could be school nurses ensuring the health needs of your child are met effectively in the school day and beyond.  They could work in specialist assessment and treatment centres where individuals with a learning disability receive intensive care at a crisis point in their life. Learning disability nurses work in nursing homes, residential homes and supported living, facilitating a valued lifestyle for the individual that promotes inclusion, rights, choice and fun.

Learning disability nurses have a unique skill set that if utilised effectively not only bring about real positive change for an individual and their family, but upholds the value base of a right to a meaningful, fully participative life, not just a service.

Many of you will have come across a learning disability nurse employed in a community nursing team.  These teams have different focuses dependent on the county in which you live in, but are there to help with the good and not so good times in the lives of people with a learning disability; their intervention could be at transition, or through a particularly stressful life event.

What don’t learning disability nurses do?

Wear uniforms that are more commonly associated with hospitals, but apart from that they pretty much take part in every conceivable aspect of the life of an individual that promotes inclusion.

We are the smallest field of nursing, and often overlooked! I’ve yet to see a learning disability nurse on Casualty or Holby City!

As families you need to be assured that working with and for people with a learning disability is a Positive Choice – www.positive-choices.com  Everyone who joins the profession does so because they want to make sure people with a learning disability get what you and I take for granted.

A selection of pretty children's socksWhy did I become a Learning Disability nurse?

I was 14 and school had a curriculum change, no more compulsory RE but everyone had to do ‘beliefs and values’ which included some placement time.  I was allocated a Wednesday once a week for a term in a special school.  Learning Disabilities hadn’t really crossed my horizons then, or that of my family.  I clearly remember tea the night before asking my mum what she thought the kids would be like – she said ‘well just kids!’ I duly turned up the next morning at 8.30 full of trepidation but a little bit excited, and was allocated to class 2 little ones who were rising 7 year olds and was hooked! I had one burning question at the end of the day… why did some kids have lovely socks and the others have grey nylon ones?’ (you see my mum still always puts great store by frilly white socks it’s her stock response when someone has a baby ‘I’ll get some pretty socks!’ ).

When I asked my mum about the grey socks at home she didn’t know and told me to ask the teacher. The teacher explained that every child I pointed out to her lived in the long stay hospital just across the way.  I couldn’t understand this as they weren’t poorly, where were their mummies and daddies?  So I asked if I could go and see where they lived. The following week at the end of the day the nurses who came to take the children ‘home’ invited me to go to.  I have to say the children were just as excited to see the nurses as the others who were going home were to see mums and taxi drivers.

The rest, as they say, is history.  My life changed and I never wanted to do anything else but work with and for people who have a learning disability.  My school weren’t very supportive as I was a grammar school girl and to quote the careers teacher ‘too clever to wipe bottoms and blow noses’, but I stayed true to my convictions.  I have worked in some lovely environments and some not so lovely, but have always done my best and led by example and yes when I worked in children’s services everyone had nice socks that were hand washed and never sent to a hospital laundry!

So every time you buy new frilly socks for your beautiful daughters you’ll know why I do what I do.