What does a Learning Disability Nurse Do? An Interview with Helen Laverty

As part of a new series of articles for Monkey Wellbeing, we’ll be sharing insights and interviews from a range of healthcare, teaching and charity experts.

We’re pleased to share with you an in-depth interview with Helen Laverty, professional lead for learning disability nursing at the University of Nottingham. Helen is also the host of the Learning Disability Nurses and Professionals Conference, Positive Choices, which is now in its 11th year.

Would you be able to tell us how you got started as a learning disability nurse?

Helen Laverty I was 14 and school had a curriculum change, no more compulsory RE but everyone had to do ‘beliefs and values’ which included some placement time. I was allocated a Wednesday once a week for a term in a special school. (1975) Learning Disabilities hadn’t really crossed my horizons then, or that of my family. I clearly remember tea the night before asking my mum what she thought the kids would be like – she said ‘well just kids!’ I duly turned up the next morning at 8.30 full of trepidation but a little bit excited, and was allocated to class 2 little ones who were rising 7 year olds and I was hooked! But I had one burning question at the end of the day…’why did some kids have lovely socks and the others have grey nylon ones?’ you see my mum (still) always puts great store by frilly white socks it’s her stock response when someone has a baby ‘I’ll get some pretty socks!’ When I asked the question at home, my mum said ‘but why don’t you ask the teacher’; so I did. The teacher explained that every child I pointed out to her lived in the long stay hospital just across the way. I couldn’t understand this as they weren’t poorly. Where were their mummies and daddies? So I asked if I could go and see where they lived. And the next week at the end of the day the nurses who came to take the children ‘home’ invited me to go too. I have to say the children were just as excited to see the nurses as the others who were going home were to see mums and taxi drivers.

The rest I can say is really history. My life changed and I never wanted to do anything else but work with and for people who have a learning disability.

School weren’t very supportive as I was a grammar school girl and to quote the careers teacher ‘too clever to wipe bottoms and blow noses’ but I stayed true to my convictions. I have worked in some lovely environments, and some not so lovely, but have always done my best and led by example, and yes when I worked in children’s services everyone had nice socks that were hand washed and never sent to a hospital laundry! I came into education because I needed a bigger audience!

Monkey Wellbeing & Helen Laverty
Monkey & Helen Laverty

What does your current role at the University of Nottingham entail?

I am professional lead for learning disability nursing, which essentially means ensuring that our student nurses have the best education and practice experience that I am able to facilitate for them. I also advise the other fields on issues relating to making sure people with a learning disability and their families get what you and I take for granted.

It seems that learning disability nursing is a wide and varied profession. Are there different areas within the profession which nurses can specialise in?

What do learning disability nurses do? They work in a range of settings across a lifetime continuum to facilitate lifestyle choices for individuals, their families and significant others. Those settings could be in a large general hospital to ensure a smooth pathway for someone through the scary world of health care (health facilitators). They could be school nurses ensuring the health needs of your child are met effectively in the school day and beyond. They could work in specialist assessment and treatment centres where individuals with a learning disability receive intensive care at a crisis point in their life. Learning disability nurses work in nursing homes, residential homes and supported living, facilitating a valued lifestyle for the individual that promotes inclusion, rights, choice and fun.

Learning disability nurses have a unique skill set that if utilised effectively not only brings about real positive change for an individual and their family but upholds the value base of a right to a meaningful, fully participative life, not just a service.

Many of you will have come across a learning disability nurse employed in a community nursing team. These teams have different focuses dependent on the county in which you live in, but are there to help with the good and not so good times in the lives of people with a learning disability; their intervention could be at transition, or through a particularly stressful life event.

What don’t learning disability nurses do? Wear uniforms that are more commonly associated with hospitals, but apart from that they pretty much take part in every conceivable aspect of the life of an individual that promotes inclusion.

We are the smallest field of nursing, and often overlooked! I’ve yet to see a learning disability nurse on Casualty or Holby City!

Would you be able to share with us some of the professional or personal challenges that learning disability nurses might face or that you have faced in the past?

Over the last 100 years the history of learning disability nursing has been littered with rumour, mystic and prejudice:-

  • There’s no future in it; you are not real nurses; you don’t need to be very clever to do it; you don’t need nurses to care for people with a learning disability.
  • It only happens behind high walls and closed doors; it’s only about ‘warehousing people’, there’s no future in it.
  • It doesn’t take a nurse to care for someone with a learning disability, anyone can do it.

So what is a learning disability nurse? He or she is an individual with a passion to ensure people with a learning disability get what you and I take for granted. The learning disability nurse is a highly skilled individual who has undertaken a university programme leading to both an academic qualification and professional qualification in nursing the individual who has a learning disability.

Would you be able to tell us a little bit about the yearly Positive Choices conference, such as its inception and how the conference has grown over the years?

  • We (nursing) are an evolving profession; we develop alongside science and society, but in learning disabilities it’s often that bit quieter: changes in policy, philosophy and attitude often see the role of the RNLD marginalised and the existence called into question, and when things go wrong in a small area (no matter how big that wrong is) the debate about the future and benefit of the RNLD is raised again.
  • Positive Choices is a thriving network/information exchange/social forum/support mechanism and conference. For the last 11 years, Positive Choices has brought together student nurses (from across the 5 nations; England, Eire, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) academics, movers and shakers in the learning disability world, people who have a learning disability and those who love them to a 500 place free to access 2 day conference. We started off with the intention of only holding one networking event. The rest, they say, is legend!
  • We receive no statutory funding and rely each year on our ‘good fairies’ to help us make it a free to access reality. We use social media throughout the year to keep students connected, and the dedicated core team work in their spare time to ‘pull it off!’

What would be some of your highlights from the most recent Positive Choices conference?

  • Well meeting monkey and all our selfies!
  • The enthusiasm of the students and their dedication to get themselves to Cardiff from across the 5 nations.
  • The Goleniowska family (http://www.downssideup.com/) blew us away
  • And MiXiT as usual stole the show!

What is your proudest career moment so far?

There are hundreds! Each time a group of students qualify and leave the nest! Just getting that smile from someone and knowing just by being you, you have made a difference. Positive Choices definitely!

Is there any advice you would offer to someone interested in specialising in learning disability nursing?

Check out our website www.positive-choices.com Ask questions, and don’t be put off by what others tell you!

Monkey Wellbeing would like to thank Helen for her time. To find out more about Positive Choices, visit www.positive-choices.com. You can follow Helen on Twitter @helen_laverty.