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Journey of a learning disability nurse

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Published: 31 May 2017

Ruth Wilson is the Programme Leader for BSc (Hons) Learning Disability Nursing Practice. Here she shares her journey as a learning disability nurse, giving valuable insight into the varied career you might be able to enjoy as a graduate of our Nursing courses.

Journey of a learning disability nurse


"I’d always wanted to work with people, in a supportive, nurturing or educational role. I left school at 16 and applied to do a Nursery Nursing course at college as I hadn’t really thought much about my long-term career. My first realisation that I wanted to work with people with learning disabilities was while I was on placement at a ‘special’ school, experiencing the immense feeling of job satisfaction and making a difference!

"I qualified as a Learning Disability Nurse in 1990 (then referred to as Registered Nurse for Mentally Handicapped!). My training was more of an apprenticeship, being counted in the numbers and working mainly on the wards of Prudhoe Hospital with occasional weeks’ academic practice in the Nursing School that was part of the hospital. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure I knew what I wanted to do with my career. I knew I wanted to help people who were more disadvantaged than myself but I suppose the expectation at that time was to be employed within the large institutions.

"When I enrolled as a student I can remember more or less being guaranteed a job in the hospital once I qualified, however, ironically, we were the first bunch of students who found out just before our final exams that we didn’t have jobs! What choices did we have? Where could we find jobs? There had been some initial movement towards community care, so ten students began fighting frantically for jobs. We sat our exams and then worked on the ward till our PIN came through – about six weeks.

Living Lab


"I went through the next few weeks desperately trying to secure a job and was eventually successful in a Residential Officer’s post with MENCAP Homes Foundation. This was one of the main societies setting up small residential homes for people currently living in Prudhoe Hospital. I absolutely loved it – it was my dream job! I would never have pictured myself in this role three years ago. Three people lived in the house with 24-hour staff support. I can honestly say we made a huge difference to their quality of life. This, in turn, gave me tremendous job satisfaction, made me feel worthwhile and valued and that my career choice was the right one!

"When MENCAP restructured, I decided it was time for a change of scenery. I began working for Gateshead Social Services in large residential homes, day centres and respite units. I took on more of a managerial role as an Assistant Homeleader in a 22-bedded unit. I encountered people who had been patients at Prudhoe Hospital, and were now being given greater opportunities in the community to improve their quality of life.

"Community care was very much the focus and after a few years, large residential units were no longer felt appropriate and the unit I was working in closed. This prompted me to try a different role in learning disability nursing and I became a community nurse for children with learning disabilities. I worked in schools, homes and social services in multi-disciplinary teams, building close relationships with families and carers. I even went to EuroDisney with one school to support the children enjoy a new experience altogether! The job was extremely demanding and emotional at times, but whatever hurdles I encountered, I knew I was helping to make a difference to those children and their families.

Students chatting in the Sciences Complex


"Due to personal circumstances, I could no longer continue with this role and applied for a post in a Learning Disability NHS Service. For the next 19 years I moved around the Trust working in day services, community teams, respite units, in-patient wards in a variety of roles. I’ve supported people with learning disabilities of all ages, with forensic backgrounds, physical disabilities, mental health problems and challenging behaviour. The opportunities for learning disability nurses is vast with various specialist roles and this continues to increase.

I’m now in an educational role at the University of Sunderland as Programme Lead for the Pre-Registration Learning Disability Programme, supporting student nurses to become registered nurses and have the same diverse and rewarding career I’ve had. I can honestly say I have never looked back or regretted the career choice I made at 16-years-old."