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‘United, we can achieve more for people and their families’

Rebecca Chester
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As we celebrate 100 years of learning disability nursing, it’s important to take stock and look at where learning disability nursing has come from and where it needs to go. 

With the shift and migration from institutionalised care, to people living in their own locality, learning disability nurses have developed, demonstrating their ongoing commitment to enabling people living with learning disabilities to have their health needs met. The adaptability of the workforce is incredible, working with people from birth, through to adulthood, older age and the end of life. Learning disability nurses are also able to work with people across the whole spectrum of health needs, building and bridging the gap between health and social care. 

Perhaps it is the diversity of the nurse that creates an air of mystery of the role and makes it challenging for people to define. Or perhaps it is that for most people in society, they won’t come into contact with or need the support of a nurse and so don’t have the lived experience of what a nurse does and the impact that they have on people, their families and carers. Or perhaps the views of others is linked to a far more sinister concern, where they do not value the lives of the people that nurses are there to serve and so they do not value the role. 

Although there have been questions of the future of learning disability nursing, it is imperative to recognise the value of the role and the people who undertake it. The “voice of the tribe” as Helen Laverty would put it, is out there working with people and their families, advocating, supporting other health and social care professionals to ensure that people’s health needs are met. The values, skills and strengths of learning disability nurses have been recognised and the role is in demand across a greater array of services than ever before.

”It is time that we stop hearing there is no future for learning disability nurses”

As we enter in to the second century of learning disability nursing, we do so knowing that there are more people living with learning disabilities and this is predicted to continue to increase. There have been failures to care and safeguard people; there have been significant concerns of institutionalised discrimination within the NHS and people living with learning disabilities are dying prematurely. We also know that the health workforce doesn’t feel adequately trained to meet their health needs. 

People talk of the positive impact nurses have on their lives and how they work to overcome health inequalities. Yet there remains an under-investment in the workforce, unprecedented national shortages and a lack of national leadership. Based on this, it is time that we stop hearing there is no future for learning disability nurses and it is time for the workforce to be invested in and take action. This investment needs to be focusing on increasing applicants to learning disability nurse programmes, workforce development through education and training and national leadership roles. 

The workforce needs to continue to work together with health professionals in adapting to meet the complexity and paucity of health needs that people experience. There is a clear focus on developing the public health role and educating other health and social care practitioners, so that together with people living with a learning disability, their families, carers and the wider health service we can reduce health inequalities and promote good physical and mental health where the person remains at the centre of everything we do. United we can accomplish so much more. 

Rebecca Chester is consultant nurse for people with learning disabilities, Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust, and chair of the United Kingdom Learning Disability Consultant Nurse Network

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