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‘We must make visible the work of learning disability nurses’

Ruth Northway

Winning a lifetime achievement award inevitably leads you to look back over your career. 

I have had the privilege of being a learning disability nurse for 39 years and have seen many changes. When I first qualified it was almost a given that you would apply to work in one of the long-stay hospitals that were the major form of service provision for people with learning disabilities at that time. Over the years, community based support and services have developed and, now, few people with learning disabilities live in long-stay healthcare settings.

My career followed a similar path – I went to work as a community nurse before subsequently moving to work in nurse education. One thing that has remained constant over that period, however, is that there is often a lack of awareness about the role of the learning disability nurse. I have regularly answered the question “What do learning disability nurses do?” and the students with whom I work report that such a question is still posed to them. Why is there a  lack of awareness about a field of nursing practice that has existed for decades?

There are several reasons. First, learning disability nurses often do not fit the public perception of nurses and nursing – few of us work in hospitals or wear uniforms, and many of the people we support are not acutely ill. However, there is growing evidence that many people with learning disabilities experience multiple long-term health problems and much of our work is focused on helping them to achieve the best health they can.

“As learning disability nurses, we have a responsibility to make the often invisible more visible”

Second, our work can sometimes be invisible to others. We work in a wide range of settings that include people’s homes, schools, GP surgeries, prisons and, yes, some do work in acute hospital settings as acute hospital liaison nurses. However, unless you are a family member or an individual with learning disabilities our work in the home is, by definition, hidden from wider view. Similarly, you may see an individual with learning disabilities successfully attend a GP surgery for a blood test but you will not see the weeks (sometimes months) of a learning disability nurse working with that individual to desensitise them to a needle phobia or to ensure that reasonable adjustments are in place – nor will you see the time that is taken to make sure colleagues working in the surgery are supported to ensure that the outcome is a positive one.

As learning disability nurses, we have a responsibility to make the often invisible more visible by articulating our role to others and undertaking research that explores the outcomes of our interventions. My reason for this is not just to promote the profession but also to ensure that people with learning disabilities have access to the knowledge and skills of learning disability nurses if, and when, they require such support.

All nurses work with people with learning disabilities and we can achieve better outcomes if we work together. Nonetheless, this requires an awareness of what we can each contribute and how we can best coordinate our efforts. If you are not sure what learning disability nurses do, or how we can work together to achieve better outcomes, find a learning disability nurse and ask them about their role. If we learn about, and from, each other we have the potential to make an important difference to the health and wellbeing of people with learning disabilities.

  • Ruth Northway is winner of the 2018 Chief Nursing Officers’ Award for Lifetime Achievement

Ruth Northway is professor of learning disability nursing, University of South Wales.


Readers' comments (2)

  • There is no need whatsoever for a special category of nurse to work with people with learning disabilities. This is a concept from the past. A new type of health professional aligned with social services is required to be created for this group of individuals. To use the term nurse is a misnomer!

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  • The nursing profession is diverse. Learning disability nurses are proffesionals who are absolutely integral to the delivery of good quality, specialist care pathways. Specialist care providers alone cannot fulfill the needs of the learning disability cohort. This has been widely evidenced. 'Strengthening the Commitment' is a government report which provides a good overview on the continuing relevance of learning disability nursing within changing health and social care structures.

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