It'll take dedication, patience and excellent communication skills to become a learning disability nurse, but you'll soon see the benefits of this rewarding career
In this role you'll help people of all ages with learning disabilities to maintain their health and wellbeing and to live their lives as fully and independently as possible. You'll also offer support to their families, carers and friends.
Being a learning disability nurse includes teaching people the skills to look after themselves or to find work, and helping with daily activities such as attending college, going on holiday or out with friends.
You'll need to draw up care plans and monitor the implementation of recommendations and will work in teams with other nurses and health and social welfare professionals.
As well as helping patients to stay healthy and making sure that they get any medical care they need, you'll help their families and carers to take breaks when necessary.
The work is mainly based in community or supported living settings, and your tasks may include:
- using expert communication skills to engage with vulnerable people
- interpreting and understanding behaviour and evidence-based outcomes to develop individual care packages
- coordinating healthcare reviews/care plans with other health and social welfare professionals, and completing appropriate paperwork
- organising home visits and attending GP clinic appointments to monitor and discuss progress with patients, their carers and their GP
- planning activities, social events and holidays with service users (in supported living settings)
- liaising with hospital admissions staff to plan patients' care needs on admission and discharge (e.g. housing and medication)
- carrying out group work on issues such as problem solving, anxiety management, healthy living and behaviour management
- supporting staff and carers in the community
- assisting with tests, evaluations and observations
- maintaining awareness of local community activities and opportunities
- supporting the agenda for equality and equal access to all community and public services.
- The NHS has clearly defined pay bands on its Agenda for Change pay structure. Newly qualified learning disability nurses usually start on band 5 where salaries range from £23,023 to £29,608.
- As you gain experience, build your skills and take on more responsibility, you can progress to band 6, where salaries are set at £28,050 to £36,644, and band 7, where you can earn £33,222 to £43,041.
- One of the highest paid positions in nursing is that of nurse consultant where salaries start at band 8a and range from £42,414 to £49,969.
These rates may be supplemented by additional payments for work in high-cost areas, unsocial hours or being on call.
Income data from NHS Employers. Figures are intended as a guide only.
As a learning disability nurse you'll typically work a 37.5 hour week. This may include unsocial hours if you work in supported living units. If you're based in the community your hours should be more regular, but occasional out-of-hours home visits may be required.
Flexible hours and part-time work opportunities are available and career breaks may be possible. Temporary work is also available through specialist agencies and nurse banks.
What to expect
- Where you work can vary. If you're based in the community you may be in clinic-type settings and/or spend time visiting patients in their own homes. You could also work with people in supported accommodation or with children in independent and state-funded specialist schools.
- Opportunities exist in most major towns and cities, but may be more limited in rural areas.
- Most learning disability nurses tend not to wear a uniform but may adhere to a dress code.
- The work may be emotionally and physically demanding at times but can also be rewarding when you see the results of your work with a patient.
- You could spend a lot of time travelling during a working day, particularly if your service covers a large geographical area.
To work as a nurse in the UK, you must be registered with the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC). To become registered, you need to have completed an accepted pre-registration nursing programme and these are only run at NMC approved educational institutions (AEIs).
Pre-registration degrees can be taken in four disciplines:
- children (paediatric)
- learning disability
- mental health.
Typically, half of the course is based in clinical practice, giving you direct experience of working with patients and families. You could be based within a variety of settings including hospitals, the community, patients' homes and independent organisations.
You may be able to get accreditation of prior learning (APL) if you have a degree in another health-related or biology-based subject or other practice-based learning. Course providers will decide what subjects are relevant and whether you can take a shorter programme so check with them for details. A list of all approved programmes can be found at NMC Approved Programmes.
Before you start a pre-registration programme, you'll need to undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service check. The NMC also states that all nurses must meet their requirements of good health and good character.
From September 2020, all pre-registration nursing students can receive funding support of at least £5,000 per year. There is up to £3,000 further funding available for eligible students. You don't have to pay it back and are still able to access funding for tuition and maintenance loans from the Student Loans Company. For more information, see Health Careers.
You'll need to show:
- empathy, sensitivity and compassion when working with patients and their families
- flexibility, as you'll be dealing with patients who have a range of needs
- patience in difficult circumstances and because results may not be quick
- assertiveness and the ability to advocate for people with learning disabilities
- emotional resilience
- good communication skills and the ability to gain the trust of people from a range of backgrounds
- the ability to work as part of a team.
Pre-entry experience is not always needed, although experience of working with people, especially care work with people with disabilities, is advantageous. You can search for charities that work with people with learning disabilities, which may be able to offer volunteering opportunities, at Charity Choice.
As a learning disability nurse, you can work in a variety of settings - including services provided by the NHS, social services and private companies. These include:
- day services
- home-based care
- supported accommodation (where five or six tenants live together in a house)
- adult education centres
- specialist schools.
In addition, there are a number of charities and private and voluntary organisations that provide support and accommodation for people with learning disabilities.
Learning disability nurses are also highly valued within the HM Prison Service. There are opportunities abroad for those with experience.
Look for job vacancies at:
- HSCRecruit.com - health and social care jobs in Northern Ireland
- NHS Jobs - for vacancies in England and Wales
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
- Nursing Times Jobs
Job vacancies are often sent directly to course leaders in the institutions where nurses train and study. In addition, there are many specialist nursing agencies, such as Pulse, that recruit for both permanent and temporary positions. For a searchable directory of agencies, see the Nursing Agencies List.
Your registration with the NMC has to be renewed every three years. To do this, you need to show that you've met revalidation requirements within that time. This includes:
- 450 practice hours, which can be made up of providing direct care to patients, managing teams, teaching others or running a care service
- 35 hours of continuing professional development (CPD), including 20 hours of participatory learning
- five pieces of practice-related feedback
- five written reflective accounts
- reflective discussion
- health and character declaration
- professional indemnity arrangement.
CPD activities can include carrying out distance learning or attending conferences, workshops or relevant training courses and events. Find out more at NMC Revalidation.
Training courses are available in areas such as:
- movement and handling
- child protection
- management of aggression and violence
- infection control.
You'll have the opportunity to further your knowledge and develop specialisms in areas such as forensic nursing, education, sensory disability or epilepsy management.
You could consider taking MSc or PhD qualifications through part-time learning programmes. If you work in the private or residential sector you'll usually be responsible for sourcing and organising your own training.
After approximately two years' post-qualification experience, you can aim for promotion, and/or further specialist study with the possibility of moving on to be a team leader or head of learning disabilities nursing.
With further training in specialist skills, management, or the development of teaching skills, it's possible to progress into:
- health management
- specialist activities
- supported-living management
- nurse education or nurse consultant roles.
Other opportunities might involve advisory work for the Department of Health or NHS. Some opportunities, for example, management roles or teaching and research, may mean a move away from hands-on work.
Outside the NHS, opportunities once you've got substantial experience can be found in social services, voluntary organisations, private healthcare organisations providing community care, and in health services overseas, in both paid and voluntary capacities.
Another opportunity for nurses is working in prison services, in settings such as specialist secure units for offenders with disabilities.