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Learning Disability Nursing Roles

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Learning Disability Nursing is a specialised and rewarding career, supporting individuals, families and carers in meeting an individual’s health and wellbeing needs across the whole of their life course, from paediatrics to elderly care. Learning Disability Nurses enjoy an enriched and challenging career working with multi-professional groups in areas where the client is in need, such as clients homes, schools, community-based teams, specialist hospital care, liaison teams, crisis and intervention teams, forensic services including prisons and specialist Autism services in the community and in hospital settings. Here, some Learning Disability Nurses share their experiences of their different roles. 

A female nurse is taking the blood pressure of a patient who is sitting in bed in the mock hospital ward

Julie Kelly - Epilepsy Specialist Nurse at Cumbria, Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Learning Disability Community Treatment Team

"Nursing in the field of learning disabilities is diverse, rewarding and enduring. The individual with a learning disability can have many complex needs, from their health, mental health, challenging behaviour, communication difficulties, difficulties engaging in planned care and treatment regimes, and require more support to access mainstream services. The role of the Learning Disability Nurse is to support, educate, advise and draw up complex treatment plans and care plans, including risk assessments for the individual, depending on diagnosis.

From transition to elderly care, severe learning disabilities and palliative pathways, the Learning Disability Nurse works with the individual, the family, carers, care provision, a vast network of other professionals ranging from general practitioners, consultant, pathology, ward staff, psychology, social workers, to name but a few. There are many areas to specialise in Learning Disability Nursing, including epilepsy, mental health, positive behaviour and physical health.

The role of the Learning Disability Nurse can be complex, but the nurse will always have a network that can support them at any time; from the wider Multidisciplinary Team (MDT), to their immediate colleagues/team, Pathway Manager and clinical leads. Specialist nurses are always at hand to offer clinical advice and best practice.

I have worked in Learning Disability Nursing since 1992, and have been a Specialist Epilepsy Nurse since 2003 and throughout my career have never met a more committed and driven set of nurses in this field.

There are many aspects to Learning Disability Nursing, and each nurse after qualifying tends to find their scope of practice, areas of interest and moves towards a specific patient group. The role of the Learning Disability Nurse is ever changing, in line with NMC, government and NHS England guidance."

Ashley Murphy - Learning Disability and Autism Primary Care Programme Manager at Cumbria, Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Health Promotion Team

"I knew after leaving school that I was interested in social care and helping to look after people who had additional needs. I completed a two-year BTEC in social care and went on a placement in a special school which provided care to children with learning disabilities. This was the most fantastic experience I could have had. I met a Learning Disability Nurse who told me about her career and how diverse it was and encouraged me to apply, so I did!

There are so many rewarding experiences, I’m not sure which one to choose. I think a fairly recent one is worth a mention! We have recently introduced point of care to people with a learning disability which mean they can have some investigations/tests in the comfort of their own surroundings. I helped a lady to have a blood test for cholesterol. She was terrified and had never had a blood test before, having always been anxious about it. I was able to support her enough to give it a go and she did! This was the start of her beginning to trust health professionals and she has since went on to have a whole host of tests and participated in screening programmes. Her family are delighted and she is very proud of herself!

I was fortunate enough several years ago to work as a Macmillan Nurse supporting people with a learning disability who developed cancer. It was a new post and I was able to shape and advise on reasonable adjustments people with learning disabilities would require when accessing cancer services.

Learning Disability Nursing is fantastic - it’s diverse and hugely rewarding. We make a significant difference to people we help every day. We help them to trust and support them to navigate through services and processes that are often very complicated and anxiety provoking. We are never bored!"

Two female nurses are standing talking to a patient who is sitting in a chair next to a hospital bed in the mock hospital ward

Dawn Tasker – Community Practitioner at Cumbria, Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust

"My career in Learning Disability Nursing started 25 years ago. My life at this time was being a mam at home with three small children who I loved dearly, however I felt as if I needed something for myself. My sister who worked as a care assistant informed me about some jobs within the Trust, looking after people with a learning disability. To be honest, at the time I did not know what this meant but I applied and was lucky enough to get an interview.

The interview was quite daunting and I came out feeling exhausted, however I was successful and was to be based in a small group home with six residents. From my first day walking into their home, my whole life changed. I just loved it so much. Their lives touched me and I felt honoured to be a part of their home. It was my second home. During my time there I realised that I wanted to do more, so I enrolled onto college courses and finally got my qualifications to enter my nurse training.

The three years went so quickly. My final placement was on what they called then ‘a challenging behaviour unit’. At the time there were a lot of staffing issues, such as sickness. Despite a few challenges, things changed. We got a new ward manager and motivated staff who wanted things to change to enhance our clients’ quality of life. The whole unit changed to somewhere that was friendly, caring, warm, fun and supportive, and where people wanted to work. We were a family who supported each other through good times and the bad.

Due to the campus re-provision it was identified that such ‘challenging behaviour’ units on hospital grounds were to close. It was at this time I left the unit and went to work in the Prison Service. After ‘serving’ four years there, I returned to my home roots, working with people with learning disabilities in the community, where I truly felt I was back home. Although I gained a lot of experience in working in the Prison Service, my heart was always with supporting people with a learning disability.

Over the course of my career there has never been a day when I have thought, “Oh no, I’ve got to go to work”. I feel so honoured and thankful to all those individuals I have worked with over the years, for allowing me to be a part of their lives."

Michael Leadbitter - Safeguarding Nurse at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, Safeguarding Team

"Before I went to university, I was working as a Support Worker for the North East Autism Society. Although I very much enjoyed the role and the people I supported and worked with, I felt that if I were to progress personally and have better career options, I should go to university and complete my nursing degree. I wanted to carry on working with, and supporting, individuals with learning disabilities and as such, I decided to apply for learning disability nursing.

For me, the best part of my course was my placements and being mentored by highly experienced learning disability nurses. I was very fortunate to have thoroughly enjoyed each of my placements and I feel that the experience I gained prepared me for the reality of working as a learning disability nurse in different settings. I was also fortunate to study alongside a number of very dedicated and supportive students who offered each other support and encouragement from start to finish. These are people I have kept in touch with since qualifying and will be friends with for life.

Sunderland was not offering nursing courses when I decided to train, however I have had the pleasure of working alongside a couple of staff members there and I am confident that students studying at Sunderland have access to some of the best support and facilities in the region. I have also supported a number of students from the University of Sunderland during their placements and I have heard, first hand, their positive experiences and the opportunities that have been afforded to them while studying at Sunderland.

I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to undertake some very exciting and challenging roles since I qualified. I initially worked as a Community Nurse in the Learning Disability Community Treatment Team. Within six months of qualifying, I was promoted to a Band 6 and was the Clinical Lead of the Learning Disability Health Promotion Team and Acute Liaison Service at Sunderland Royal Hospital. My role in the Heath Promotion Team allowed me to work alongside other services such as GP practices to ensure that individuals with learning disabilities had fair and supported access to health appointments such as annual health checks, NHS screening programmes and hospital appointments. This role also allowed me to plan and facilitate various workshops relating to health matters for individuals with learning disabilities. While doing this role, I was also the Liaison Nurse in Sunderland Royal Hospital. This was a highly challenging role in a very busy acute hospital. The role gave me the opportunity to learn a great deal about a number of areas in the hospital. My role was varied and there were seldom two days the same. From completing Care Passports to making complex and detailed plans for patient admissions. Following this, I went back to work with the Learning Disability Community Treatment Team as part of the Physical Health Pathway. I was fortunate to work alongside experienced and dedicated professionals who shared their knowledge and helped me improve my practice. Although I only remained with the team for a year, I feel it was highly beneficial and I have taken so much from the people I worked with.

I currently work for South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust as part of the Adult Safeguarding Team. The work I currently do, although highly emotive, is also rewarding and I feel that I and the team I work with are making a real difference to the most vulnerable individuals in our society.

Although I have only been qualified for four years, I have had amazing opportunities thanks to attending university and becoming a learning disability nurse. I have made amazing friends, had wonderful opportunities and genuinely feel as though I have great prospects for future development and advancement in the NHS."


Find out more about BSc (Hons) Learning Disability Nursing at the University of Sunderland.

Published: 3 June 2020