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'I wanted to push ordinariness, not make people with learning disabilities feel different'

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Shocked by what her learning disability nursing students told her, Helen Laverty set up an event to promote the specialty’s value

There were tissues aplenty at last week’s Positive Choices conference for 500 student learning disabilities nurses.

Hosted by Cumbria University, the conference was the ninth annual event that aims to enthuse and strengthen the community of LD student nurses. And it was filled with heartfelt stories of the challenges of working in this field.

LD academic Helen Laverty was the inspiration - and the perspiration - behind this now legendary annual event. “I trained in 1979 and entered education in 1987 because I wanted a bigger audience to promote the concepts that I held dear in LD nursing,” she says. “To push ordinariness in care homes, not making people with learning disabilities feel different. And I also wanted to promote the things you and I take for granted as fundamental rights for those
with LD, such as making a cup of tea or going out.”

Although those things have changed in the four decades since Ms Laverty trained, some prejudice still exists. “Students tell us that people with learning
disabilities have been asked to leave pubs because they are busy and there is no room for them. And we’ve been told they have been asked to leave
busy museum queues because museum staff tell them ‘it’s not like they could read or understand the plaques in there anyway’”, she says.
But it’s not just people with learning disabilities that have suffered prejudice,according to Ms Laverty.

About nine years ago, a group of her students came back from a Royal College of Nursing jobs fair where they were told they should check it wasn’t too late to switch to mental health, and they’d never get jobs or find a future in learning disabilities.

“They rang me on the way home to rant,” says Ms Laverty. “I knew it was too important to leave until morning so I met them off the train and to d them I didn’t know of anyone who had not found work in LD.”

But, concerned that this experience may not be unique, she put out a request on her networks to see if anyone else had witnessed such prejudice. “I watched the responses fl ood in and I knew I had to do something,” she says.

So, in 2005, Positive Choices was born. It was run at Nottingham - Ms Laverty’s university -for 400 students. It cost just under £3,000 through her being “bloody minded and pulling in cheeky favours”.

She knew she had to bring in stars to attract students nationally, so she invited Bob Gates, a professor and authority on LD nursing.

Ms Laverty recalls being at that first conference at 5am, talking to a porter about how scared she was that no one would turn up. “The porter came back to
me a few hours later and said: ‘The only thing you didn’t do was organise the coach parking.’ ” I was so surprised.

They were turning up in coachloads from all over the country.” The conference was intended to be a one-off event, but it was so popularwith students that it has become an annual high point in the calendar.

“To make it a fixture, I Helen Laverty: conference lets students rea  rm their choice coaxed, boxed and pulled in favours,” she says. “I never take no as a no, I work on a maybe.”

It may be hard work in addition to her academic day job, but she says it is worth it. “The students all say that Positive Choices has changed their lives - made them more aware of their community, given them networking opportunities and made them feel valued,” she says.

“One student told me: ‘It is perfect to be part of the majority, not the minority, for once.’ “The events now feature presentations from LD nurses, students and academics, as well as the opportunity to talk to employers and suppliers.

Social networking on Facebook and Twitter gives them a chance to discuss their anxieties all year around. “The conference gives them the chance to reaffim
what they want to do and chose to do,” says Ms Laverty.

Agreed. And maybe she should get Kleenex to sponsor the tearfest event next year.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It says something terrible about our society when our most vulnerable face exclusion from the most basic of things. Since when did those with a voice become able to remove choices, emotions and opportunities from the voiceless?
    When did this world become so embarrassed and angry towards people who are different? Are we so short-sighted that we cannot see the beauty in individuals, their potential, or their right to happiness? Regardless of how fast the world turns, fashion changes or time ticks past, underneath all of that, we are all still the same. We are all still people.
    Learning disability nursing should never be seen as lesser than the other branches. It is never ‘less.’ There will always be jobs, because there will always be people with learning disabilities. Yet beyond that basis, there is a depth to the profession beyond that ever experienced by the adult nurse. LD nursing gives the opportunity to enter someone’s life and change it. It provides people with futures, opens opportunities and allows families to live independently.
    If I know Helen Laverty there will be a long future of positive choices. And I would forget the Kleenex. For whilst the tears will flow, there will always be laughter, and celebration of the abilities of people with learning disabilities! It takes someone like Helen to make a career into a lifestyle. She promotes normality in the most difficult of circumstances.
    As she once said, ‘we don’t want to make people with LD’s extra-special. We just want them to have the same opportunities as everyone else’.
    Helen, you do, and you are. Good for you!

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