I speak from experience when I say that learning disabilities nursing training is a callous experience
Predominantly it is the constant reminder, at the hands of other healthcare professionals, that we are not ‘proper’ nurses. If learning disability nurses are forced to forever defend themselves for not being ‘proper’ nurses, does that same preconception apply to individuals with learning disabilities? Are they viewed as not being ‘proper’ people by health staff and providers?
“Are [people with learning disabilities] viewed as not being ‘proper’ people by health staff and providers?”
I have been fortunate enough to take part in a nurse exchange organised by the University of Hertfordshire and Oxford Brookes University. In short, the exchange required first year adult nurses at Oxford Brookes and first year learning disability nurses at the University of Hertfordshire (Oxford campus) to swap placements for two weeks, the aim being that both branches of nursing experience one other’s roles within the healthcare environment.
I must blow the trumpets of both the University of Hertfordshire and Oxford Brookes University and congratulate them for recognising the need for students to experience the roles of different professions and taking the initiative to implement this element into their programmes. The exchange was welcomed by both branches of nurses who were all in agreement that it would be an eye-opener.
“I was shocked further still when I found out this comment had been made by a deputy sister.”
I spoke to three fellow learning disability students, Zoe Turan, Charlotte Temple and Sian Donavan, about their individual experiences on the nurse swap.
Zoe was left determined to challenge prejudices when, whilst on the exchange, she was asked why on earth she wanted to work with people with a learning disability by someone who proceeded to make an inappropriate noise accompanied by a disturbing facial expression to explain what she thought people with learning disabilities did.
I was shocked further still when I found out from Zoe this comment had been made by a deputy sister.
“She was told that she wouldn’t be a real nurse as she ‘couldn’t make people better’.”
To Charlotte, whilst on the exchange it seemed that learning disability nurses weren’t considered to be nurses at all. She was told that she wouldn’t be a real nurse as she ‘couldn’t make people better’. Why would we need to make someone with a learning disability better exactly? Their impairment does not make them ill. Charlotte found herself having to explain repeatedly what a learning disability nurse is and what it is we do.
For Sian, going on to an adult ward was familiar, as she had previously trained for two years as an adult nurse. However, being a learning disability nurse Sian said, has enabled her experience things on the ward in a different pair of shoes.
“Individuals with learning disabilities access hospitals and it is not acceptable simply to say you are not equipped to provide them with effective care.”
Sian told me what some of the adult nurses she spoke to about their experiences with individuals with learning disabilities had told her. Those on her ward said of course they try their hardest to provide good quality care but fully admitted they are not specialised or equipped with the skills to enable them to give effective care for these individuals. They told Sian that as a result they rely a lot on parents and carers.
Although I appreciate the honesty of these nurses, it does set alarm bells ringing for me. Why are our nurses not equipped to care for certain people? Individuals with learning disabilities access hospitals and it is not acceptable simply to say you are not equipped to provide them with effective care.
“So why, if nurses recognise they do not have the skills to care for individuals with learning disabilities, aren’t they learning to do so?”
The NMC recommends a continuation of professional development after graduation, so why, if nurses recognise they do not have the skills to care for individuals with learning disabilities, aren’t they learning to do so?
I must add, of course, that the experiences of my colleagues and me are not a reflection on every adult nurse. I appreciate that adult nursing is both a physically and emotionally demanding profession, and its nurses are clinically highly skilled.
And I do find myself questioning whether some attitudes towards learning disabilities nursing would be different if a nurse exchange was a requirement of all nursing programmes.
So would you welcome the experience of a different branch of nursing? Do you think it may help you build a broader skillset? Or perhaps equip you with the knowledge to care for everyone regardless of their needs?
Rebecca Wallett is Student Nursing Times’ student editor for learning disabilities branch.