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'Let’s take more than a week to raise awareness of learning disabilities'

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This week is Learning Disability Awareness Week 2019, which also culminates this year with nursing staff around the country celebrating 100 years of the specialty.

I am not normally one for awareness days, weeks or months, as there seems to be one – often two – covering every date in the calendar.

I appreciate their aim and the good that they can do, but they have become a bit of an ever-present public relations exercise.

However, having said all that, I think Learning Disability Awareness Week is important. The people it is seeking to help really do need awareness raised about them.

They are a group that somehow always seems to be largely forgotten by wider society, except when the latest care scandal puts them in the media spotlight – before it moves on again.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of learning disability nursing, which is now in the grip of a workforce crisis that has seemingly been on the horizon for a while without action being taken.

There have been warnings galore in recent years of a fall in the number of learning disability nursing courses and the number of learning disability nurses in the NHS hit a record low last year.

At least the new Interim NHS People Plan has promised to curb these trends. It highlighted the need for “urgent, accelerated action” to tackle nursing vacancies in learning disability settings.

And there is a pledge of “specific action” to help ensure the growth of learning disability nursing and other struggling specialties through work with higher education institutions.

It said: “We will promote nursing roles working with people with mental health needs, learning disability and/or autism, raising the profile of these exciting and rewarding career options.”

Hopefully, positive awareness can also help slow the downward trends. The specialty is celebrating its centenary on 21 June – with Friday also marking the end of Learning Disability Awareness Week.

The annual awareness event is co-ordinated by the charity Mencap. It has set this year’s theme as “sport and inclusion”, in a bid to tackle social isolation for people with a learning disability.

The charity believes fear of being bullied makes many people with a learning disability reluctant to leave their homes and take part in sport, attend hospital visits or enjoy social activities.

Its hope is that by holding different events and activities during this awareness week, people with and without a learning disability will come together through sport.

In one example, learning disability nurses at Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust are working with North Lincolnshire Council to host an array of sporting activities.

Together, the trust will be working with the council and others to put on guided walks, bowling, boccia ball and new-age curling for people with learning disabilities.

Meanwhile, national bodies Health Education England, NHS England and NHS Improvement are set to host a celebration of learning disability nursing at the House of Commons on Friday.

The chief nursing officer for England, Dr Ruth May, has also used the social media site Twitter to draw attention to both the awareness week and the anniversary.

So, let’s all do what we can to raise awareness of people with learning disabilities and to the work done by learning disability nurses – all of the time but particularly this week.

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