Learning disabilities affect around 1.5 million people living in the UK. Those with the condition, which can range from mild to severe, find it harder to learn, communicate, and perform everyday tasks. If you’re considering a career as a learning disability nurse, read on to discover the typical duties, personal qualities and qualifications you’ll need to succeed in the role, plus how to start your job search.
Nature of the role of learning disability nurse
Having a learning disability is a lifelong condition that is neither an illness nor a disease, although individuals are more likely to suffer from certain physical and mental health problems, such as epilepsy. Unlike most branches of nursing, the focus is not on ‘helping patients get better’, but enabling each person to fulfil their potential and lead a more independent life.
Learning disability nurses work in a diverse range of settings, including hospitals, clients’ homes, schools, workplaces, residential centres, and supported housing. They work closely with their clients’ families and carers as part of a patient-focused multidisciplinary team, which can include everyone from social workers, care managers and teachers, to occupational therapists, speech therapists and psychiatrists.
As a learning disability nurse, part of your role is making sure that your client has access to the right health services, which can mean helping other healthcare professionals to understand their needs better in order to deliver the best care possible.
As a learning disability nurse, you would assess an individual’s health and social care needs – which may include problems with speech, hearing or vision, mental health problems, epilepsy and physical disabilities – and carry out regular observations and evaluations.
Tasks range from helping with personal hygiene and dressing, to offering encouragement and support with independent living, for example: using public transport, going shopping, enjoying leisure interests and community activities, attending appointments and finding work.
You may help clients in their home, helping them to raise a family for instance, or at their place of work or education.
Personality and skills required for the job
The ability to relate to people of all ages and from all walks of life with sensitivity, patience and compassion is essential. Communication skills are important – you need to talk calmly and clearly and be able to interpret other types of communication, such as body language, and recognise signs of physical or emotional problems. Organisation skills and the ability to work well as part of a team is also required.
You must show genuine respect, warmth and compassion to gain the trust of clients and their families, but be assertive enough to advocate for them, which may include protecting them from discrimination.
The job can be physically, mentally and emotional demanding, so being able to stay calm and in control in difficult situations and having a certain amount of emotional resilience and self-awareness helps.
While the role can be challenging, there are many rewards too. Helping vulnerable people to be included in their community and seeing them make progress, whether that’s an improvement in health or learning a new skill or growing in confidence, can be hugely satisfying. What qualifications do I need? To become a learning disability nurse you need to complete a pre-registration nursing degree or diploma accredited by the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC). Typically lasting three years, courses combine theoretical and practical training, with half your time spent on university study and the other half on supervised work placements in hospitals and the community.
To be accepted onto a degree programme, you will usually need at least five GCSEs (A-C), including English, maths and a science, two or three A-levels, including at least one science or health-related subject and good references.
You choose from four disciplines (children/adult/learning disability/mental health) before starting the course. In your first year, you study common foundation models that are relevant to all branches of nursing and then specialise in learning disability nursing.
Opportunities and career development
Once qualified, you may decide to specialise in a specific area. For example, if community work appeals, you could take further training to become a community behaviour specialist. Alternatively, you may choose to specialise in a particular disability, such as a sensory disability, epilepsy or autism.
With experience, you could go on to lead a team in a residential setting or manage a learning disability unit, or you could train as a health visitor.
The NHS is the biggest employer, but there are opportunities to work in the private sector, the prison service, and local authority social services. For vacancies, check NHS Jobs, Nursing Times and CareJobFinder.
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