Being a learning disability nurse is a challenging but rewarding career where you'll help people to live independent lives

As a learning disability nurse, you'll help people of all ages with learning disabilities to maintain their health and wellbeing and to live their lives as fully as possible.

Being a learning disability nurse includes teaching people the skills to look after themselves, keep themselves healthy (both physically and mentally) 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 also provide support to their families, carers and friends. The work is often based in community or supported living settings.

Responsibilities

As a learning disability nurse, you'll need to:

  • engage with vulnerable people in order to develop a relationship built on trust
  • interpret and understand behaviour and evidence-based outcomes to develop individual care packages
  • coordinate healthcare reviews/care plans with other health and social welfare professionals, and complete appropriate paperwork
  • organise home visits and attend GP clinic appointments to monitor and discuss progress with patients, their carers and their GP
  • help patients complete everyday activities such as dressing and personal hygiene, shopping and preparing food, using public transport, attending appointments, finding work and managing their finances
  • plan activities, social events and holidays with service users (in supported living settings)
  • liaise with hospital admissions staff to plan patients' care needs on admission and discharge (e.g. housing and medication)
  • carry out group work on issues such as problem solving, anxiety management, healthy living and behaviour management
  • support staff and carers in the community
  • assist with tests, evaluations and observations
  • maintain awareness of local community activities and opportunities
  • support the agenda for equality and equal access to all community and public services.

Salary

  • The NHS pay structure, Agenda for Change, has clearly defined pay bands for nurses. Salaries for newly qualified learning disability nurses range from £25,655 to £31,534 (Band 5).
  • As you gain experience and take on more responsibility, you'll work your way up through the bands. Most experienced nurses work at Band 6 or 7 with salaries ranging from £32,306 to £45,89.
  • One of the highest paid positions in nursing is as a nurse consultant, where salaries start on Band 8a ranging from £47,126 to £53,219.

These rates may be supplemented by additional payments for working unsocial hours or being on call. Extra allowances of 5% to 20% are payable in the London area, depending on your proximity to inner London.

Income data from Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

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. In some roles, you may have to work shifts or provide 24-hour care.

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. You may also be based in hospitals, mental health settings and prisons.
  • You'll work as part of a multidisciplinary team that may include GPs, psychologists, teachers, social workers, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists.
  • Opportunities exist in most major towns and cities, but may be more limited in rural areas.
  • 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.

Qualifications

You need to be registered with the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) to work as a learning disability nurse in the UK. To be eligible to register you must complete a pre-registration nursing degree or registered nurse degree apprenticeship (RNDA) delivered by an NMC approved education institution (AEI).

Nursing degrees can be taken in four disciplines:

  • adult
  • children
  • learning disability
  • mental health.

A small number of institutions offer dual field degrees, allowing you to study in two of the above areas.

Degree courses typically last three years full time, four for dual field (or degree courses in Scotland). Part of the programme 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 experiential learning (APEL) if you have practice-based learning or a degree in another health-related, biology-based or social sciences subject. Having APEL may shorten your course to two years, but this is at the discretion of individual institutions so it's always best to check.

The NMC states that good health is necessary to practise as a nurse, but this doesn't mean that you'll be exempt if you have a disability or health condition. Before you start a pre-registration programme, you'll also need to take a criminal records check

For a list of recognised programmes, see NMC Approved Programmes.

A non-repayable training grant of at least £5,000 a year is available to nursing students while at university. For more information, see Health Careers.

Registered nurse degree apprenticeships (RNDAs) are offered by some employers and the amount of them is expected to grow. These are a more flexible way to study as you’re not at university full time. Instead, you’ll need to secure a RNDA position with an employer and they will release you for part-time study at university. You’ll complete training in a range of settings from hospitals and mental health facilities to patients’ homes.

RNDAs typically take four years to complete and the cost is covered by your employer. You may be able to do it in a shorter length of time if you have APEL.

If you're working in a healthcare support role, you may be able to apply for a nursing associate apprenticeship, which can be seen as a way into nursing as it’s possible to progress on to a shortened nursing degree or RNDA.

Skills

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 and creativity in difficult circumstances and because positive results may take a long time to achieve
  • assertiveness and the ability to advocate for people with learning disabilities
  • emotional resilience and self-awareness
  • communication and listening skills and the ability to gain the trust of people from a range of backgrounds
  • organisation skills and the ability to prioritise needs
  • problem-solving skills and the ability to use sound judgement when deciding on which action to take to best meet patients' needs
  • the ability to work as part of a team.

Work experience

Relevant pre-entry experience is useful when applying for courses or jobs. This can include working with people in some way, particularly within in social care or healthcare settings or with people with disabilities. It will demonstrate you interest in and dedication to the profession.

You can search for charities that work with people with learning disabilities, which may be able to offer volunteering opportunities, at Charity Choice.

You could also try to shadow a nurse or talk to some about what the job is really like so you have a realistic idea of what is involved.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

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:

  • adult care homes
  • adult education centres
  • day services
  • home-based care
  • hospitals
  • specialist schools
  • supported accommodation (where five or six tenants live together in a house)
  • workplaces
  • HM Prison Service.

In addition, there are a number of charities and private and voluntary organisations that provide support and accommodation for people with learning disabilities. There are opportunities abroad for those with experience.

Look for job vacancies at:

Job vacancies are often sent directly to course leaders in the institutions where nurses train and study.

Specialist recruitment agencies, such as Pulse, often handle vacancies. For contact details of various consultancies try the Nursing Agencies List.

Professional development

As a newly registered learning disability nurse, you will usually have the opportunity to take part in a period of preceptorship. This transition phase is designed to help you further develop your practice and gain in confidence. It covers fundamental competencies in patient care as well as broad skills in leadership, management, teaching and communication.

In Scotland, all newly qualified nurses are entitled to participate in Flying Start NHS. This is a personal development programme aimed at building your confidence and supporting your learning in your first year of practice.

Your registration with the NMC must 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 where you've interacted with at least one other professional for example at conferences, training courses and events
  • five pieces of practice-related feedback
  • five written reflective accounts
  • reflective discussion
  • health and character declaration
  • having a professional indemnity arrangement.

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.

Career prospects

Once you're qualified and have some 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 work, for example in a sensory disability such as autism
  • supported-living management
  • research
  • nurse education or nurse consultant roles.

Roles as a nurse leader are also available which could see you managing a ward or leading a team of nurses. The NHS Leadership Academy provides a number of programmes to help nurses into leadership roles at all levels of your career.

Other opportunities might involve advisory work for the Department of Health and Social Care or the 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.

For more information on career prospects, see the Royal College of Nursing Careers resource for registered nurses.

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