For the last 99 years the work of learning disability (LD) nurses has been largely hidden within the wider nursing family; much like the population that we serve.
We have faced prejudice and misunderstanding – people forget that we have the same essential skill base as any other nurse. All students who choose to enrol on the RN (LD) programme study alongside colleagues from the other fields and have to demonstrate the same acquisition of competence.
“When things go wrong in an LD setting our very existence is called into question”
We are the smallest field of professional nursing practice and this year have seen our numbers cut yet again by universities recruiting to their courses. Why? It remains in my professional opinion the lack of visibility of the need of the LD nurse, alongside a belief that it doesn’t take a professional nursing qualification to make a vast difference to the lives of the most vulnerable group in our society and their families.
When things go wrong in an LD setting our very existence is called into question, but without the powers that be actually exploring what actually went wrong and how this could have been different.
It takes great resilience to be a qualified nurse and I would argue that to be an LD nurse in the 21st century takes more resilience. Students sit in large lecture theatres listening to the application of skill and policy to all groups of society and, in the main, hear nothing of people with a learning disability and when they raise the question often do not receive a satisfactory answer – if any.
On close scrutiny, the skill base of the LD nurse lies at the solution of many of the health and social care challenges facing the UK and is arguably the field that best demonstrates care across lifespan and settings as advocated in the new NMC standards.
We have strengthened our commitment to people who have a learning disability and have networked our skills to colleagues whose primary focus of professional practice is intellectual impairment.
“The skill base of the LD nurse lies at the solution of many of the health and social care challenges facing the UK”
When will the profession strengthen its commitment to us and the families we serve? It is both disheartening and rewarding to find families seeking out the LD nurse community through social media because there isn’t a nurse available to them, or the lack of understanding in mainstream health and social care means that needs go unmet, health deteriorates and families are left isolated with nowhere to turn.
This is felt most in families of small children at the start of their journey and in families where an individual has a profound and multiple impairment – often seen as the most difficult to nurse, but not often commissioned for an LD nurse. The new Raising the Bar standards will hopefully place this firmly on the nursing care sector agenda.
What would begin to address all of this? A Christmas list for me would include:
- A national campaign promoting the work and career path of the LD nurse
- A commitment from every university running nursing programmes to include in their menu of opportunity at least a mention of the care needs of people who have a learning disability
- A strategic development that explores how we can increase the numbers of LD nurses delivering essential care when it is needed, where it is needed and to people who have a learning disability.
Please look around your natural work environment and see where you should be strengthening the commitment to LD nurses, I don’t just want to become a hashtag – #SaveLDnursing
Helen Laverty is facilitator of the Positive Choices network and professional lead for learning disability nursing at the University of Nottingham