Learning disability nurses support people with learning disabilities and their families, carers and friends. They help patients to maintain their health and wellbeing and to live their lives as fully and independently as possible.
This includes helping people with their daily activities, teaching them the skills to look after themselves or find work. They also support them in making decisions about going to college, going on holiday or carrying out leisure activities with friends.
Learning disability nurses draw up care plans and monitor the implementation of recommendations. Their work is carried out in multidisciplinary teams with other nurses and health and social welfare professionals.
As well as helping patients to stay healthy and making sure they get any medical care that they need, learning disability nurses also support their carers and families, helping them to take breaks when necessary.
Learning disability nurses have the knowledge, skills, attitudes and abilities to work in partnership with people of all ages who have learning disabilities. They work with their patients families and carers, in order to help them to develop individually and fulfil their potential in all aspects of their lives, irrespective of their disabilities.
The work is mainly based in community or supported living settings and can be very varied. Tasks can 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 service users, 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);
- advocating on behalf of people with learning disabilities and encouraging self-advocacy;
- carrying out group work with service users and patients on issues such as problem-solving, anxiety management, healthy living and behaviour management;
- supporting staff and carers in the community;
- organising emergency admissions;
- completing management plans and reports;
- assisting with tests, evaluations and observations;
- teaching students and/or training health and social care colleagues;
- maintaining awareness of local community activities and opportunities;
- supporting the agenda for equality and equal access to all community and public services;
- campaigning to ensure better healthcare outcomes and services for people with learning disabilities.
- Newly qualified learning disability nurses start on Band 5 of the Agenda for Change Pay Rates within the NHS. Salaries at this scale range from £21,478 to £27,901.
- Specialist nurses (Band 6) earn between £25,783 and £34,530, while nurse team managers (Band 7) are on salaries ranging from £30,764 to £40,558.
These rates may be supplemented by additional payments for work in high cost areas, unsocial hours or being on call.
Although there is a national salary structure, there may be local variations. Additional qualifications may enhance salary. Qualified nurses in London and the South East of England are eligible for cost of living supplements of between 5% and 20% of basic salary.
Income data from the National Health Service (NHS). Figures are intended as a guide only.
The typical working week in the NHS is 37.5 hours. Working hours may include unsocial hours if you work in supported living units, but regular hours are generally worked in the community. Occasional out-of-hours home visits may be required. Learning disability nurses working within the HM Prison Service work regular hours with no overtime (and are usually paid higher salaries), although many nurses working in HM prisons are now employed by the NHS.
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
- Community nurses may be based in clinic-type settings and/or spend time visiting service users in their own homes. Some 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.
- Nursing has traditionally been seen as a female-dominated profession, but the number of men in learning disabilities nursing is higher than in other branches.
- 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 result of your work with a patient.
- Community-based nurses may spend a lot of time travelling during a working day, particularly if their service covers a large geographical area.
To become a learning disability nurse you must have a degree in pre-registration nursing. This then leads to registration with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) which in turn allows you to practice as a nurse.
Pre-registration degrees can be taken in four disciplines:
- children (paediatric);
- learning disability;
- mental health.
Candidates usually need to choose their discipline before beginning the course. Some courses offer learning disability nursing alongside social work.
You will also need to complete an occupational health check and an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check before taking up a placement on a pre-registration programme.
If you haven't done a pre-registration degree you may be able to complete a Masters level pre-registration nursing programme.
These are usually offered as accelerated courses lasting two years rather than the standard three. You will typically need to have a relevant first degree in a health or science subject but some organisations may consider non-health related degrees as well. Check with individual institutions for details.
Funding support to help cover tuition fees is provided by the NHS for UK residents. You should contact individual institutions to find out if your course is covered.
Bursaries are also provided to help with living costs. More information can be found at NHS Student Bursaries.
More information on getting into nursing including a facility to search for pre-registration degrees is available from Nursing & Midwifery Council: Education.
You will need to show:
- empathy, sensitivity and compassion;
- 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;
- 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.
Learning disability nurses 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, which provide further employment opportunities for learning disability nurses.
As extensively trained staff, 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
- RCN Bulletin Jobs
- Individual NHS trust websites - find contact details at NHS Authorities and Trusts.
- Local council websites.
Job vacancies are often sent directly to course leaders in the institutions where nurses train and study. In addition, recruitment agencies sometimes handle vacancies.
It is a requirement of the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) and all employers that learning disability nurses stay up to date with health care issues and practice.
To demonstrate this, you must declare every three years that you have met the PREP (post-registration education and practice) standards. A minimum of 450 hours of registered nursing practice and 35 hours of continuing professional development (CPD) needs to have been done within the three year period.
If you let your registration lapse or take a career break, you will have to show that you have met additional requirements to be able to re-register with the NMC. For more information, see The PREP Handbook.
There are ongoing, mandatory training courses in areas such as:
- movement and handling;
- child protection;
- management of aggression and violence;
- infection control.
Learning disability nurses also have the opportunity to further their knowledge and develop specialisms, in areas such as forensic nursing, education or epilepsy management.
The National Health Service (NHS) recognises the importance of CPD and has a firm commitment to providing post-registration training, which will count towards the 35 hours of learning activity. This can be undertaken in a variety of ways, including in-service training, through secondments to university, or via distance learning routes.
It is also possible to progress towards degree, MSc or PhD qualifications through part-time learning programmes. Learning disability nurses working in the private or residential sector are usually responsible for sourcing and organising their own training.
A newly qualified learning disability nurse starts as a Band 5 staff nurse.
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 is possible to progress into:
- health management;
- specialist activities;
- supported-living management;
- nurse education.
Other opportunities might involve advisory work for the Department of Health (DH) or the National Health Service (NHS) (see Health Careers). Some opportunities, for example, management roles or teaching and research, may mean a move away from hands-on work.
Outside the NHS, opportunities for experienced practitioners 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.