Learning disability nurses 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
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.
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.
- The NHS pay structure, Agenda for Change, has clearly defined pay bands for nurses. Salaries for newly qualified learning disability nurses range from £24,907 to £30,615 (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 £31,365 to £44,503.
- One of the highest paid positions in nursing is as a nurse consultant, where salaries start on Band 8a ranging from £44,503 to £51,668.
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.
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.
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 nursing degree apprenticeship delivered by an NMC approved education institution (AEI).
Nursing degrees can be taken in four disciplines:
- 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). Half 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.
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.
Nursing degree apprenticeships are offered by some employers and offer a more flexible route to becoming a nurse. You'll work for an NHS employer as a nursing degree apprentice and will be released for part-time study at a university. Training takes place in a range of practice settings.
Degree apprenticeships 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 may lead on to a nursing degree apprenticeship.
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.
Pre-entry experience is not always needed, although experience of working with people, especially social care or healthcare work with people with disabilities, is helpful. It shows your 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.
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
- specialist schools.
- supported accommodation (where five or six tenants live together in a house)
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:
- HSCNI Jobs - health and social care jobs in Northern Ireland
- NHS Jobs - for vacancies in England and Wales. Also includes adverts for nursing degree apprenticeships.
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
- Nursing Times Jobs
Job vacancies are often sent directly to course leaders in the institutions where nurses train and study.
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
- five pieces of practice-related feedback
- five written reflective accounts
- reflective discussion
- health and character declaration
- having a 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.
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.
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
- nurse education or nurse consultant roles.
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.