'People with a learning disability don't have any inhibitions' - 100 years of learning disability nursing celebrated
PUBLISHED: 17:40 15 June 2019 | UPDATED: 17:40 15 June 2019
"Learning disability nurses are important because they believe in you and help you speak up, loud."
That was the message from 38-year-old James Massey, from Lowestoft, as 100 years of learning disability nursing was due to be marked next week.
Mr Massey, who lives in supported accommodation in Lowestoft and has a diagnosis of learning disabilities and autism, spent 18 years of his life in a variety of hospitals.
But now he is putting his experience to use as a member and current deputy chairman of the Waveney Learning Disability Service Users and Carers Forum.
Mr Massey, who struggles to read, has also been helping the region's mental health trust make improvements for patients with a learning disability, most recently making an easy read reminder card for patients to bring along to consultant appointments.
Sue Medley, a learning disabilities specialist nurse who works with Mr Massey for Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT), first qualified as a registered nurse for the mentally handicapped in 1991. Learning disability nursing became the accepted term in the 1990s.
She said: "In 1991, it was unthinkable that we would work closely with service users. However, they have so much to offer and after almost 30 years I still often find they give a perspective I would never have considered.
"I've known James for many years and we have a mutual respect for each other, in exactly the same way that I do for any other colleague."
Learning Disability Awareness Week runs from June 17, and as part of the celebrations Sue Bridges, consultant nurse at NSFT has been invited to the House of Commons to take part in an event to celebrate the centenary of learning disability nursing.
In Norwich NSFT staff and service users will take part in a public event at The Forum. Organised by the UEA's School of Health Sciences it takes place 10am-4pm on June 21 and 22.
'People with a learning disability don't have any inhibitions'
Helen Symonds was inspired to take up learning disability nursing after spending fun-filled holidays during her youth with children with a learning disability.
Although she no longer specialises in the field, she still describes caring for people with learning disabilities as her passion.
Ms Symonds trained as a learning disability nurse in 1998 and spent the next 16 years working in a variety of settings, including a group home and an assessment and treatment unit, before moving to child and adolescent mental health services in Peterborough to support young people with challenging behaviour.
Now a psychological therapist with Wellbeing Norfolk and Waveney, based in King's Lynn, she continues to play a role in helping improve care for people with LD by volunteering as one of NSFT's green light champions.
"When I was younger I worked for the Red Cross and we would take children with a learning disability away each year on holiday," said Ms Symonds. "It was so much fun and the reason I chose learning disabilities as my career.
"People with a learning disability don't have any inhibitions and have a really lovely way of looking at the world which differs to those without LD. They always treat others with respect - to them, it's not important what colour your hair is or if you have the latest trainers, which I find really refreshing.
"I have kept my passion for LD going by signing up as a green light champion. I want to play a part in further improving the Wellbeing Service for people with LD by making sure they can access the service in the same way as everyone else.
"My experiences as an LD nurse have helped in my current role as I feel I'm able to meet the needs of people from all walks of life and can hopefully help empower them to better mental health. It's definitely a career path I'd recommend."
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'People communicate in multiple ways'
The skills that Rachel Petty-Cook used while working for six years as a learning disability nurse are invaluable in her current role as a prevention of management and aggression practitioner (PMA).
"I know from my experience as a learning disability nurse that people communicate in multiple ways," said Ms Petty-Cook, who is based at Hellesdon Hospital and fills one of the trust's 13 PMA practitioner posts.
As well as teaching staff how to manage challenging situations, her role includes supporting clinical teams in West Norfolk and the Suffolk Adult Learning Disability Service in Walker Close, Ipswich.
"People are often surprised that as a PMA practitioner, I question the notion of restraint," she said. "If you reflect on why someone is behaving aggressively, you can often de-escalate them through understanding the reason for the behaviour.
"I share this knowledge with our staff caring for patients so that they can proactively manage a situation to keep everyone safe."
Before embarking on nurse training, Ms Petty-Cook had worked in retail while volunteering with supporting the homeless. This led to a two-year community care course and she then worked three years for a charity which supported people with a learning disability into work.
Ms Petty-Cook, 53, qualified as a learning disability nurse in 1998 at the age of 32 after three years of training at the UEA.
She then spent six years working at Little Plumstead Hospital, near Norwich, and became interested in PMA while attending a PMA course at Hellesdon Hospital and learning of a need for PMA practitioners with a background in learning disability nursing.
Her ambitions for the future are to continue supporting staff and teams as a PMA practitioner, content in the knowledge that her work is making a difference.
Progress made in learning disability nursing
NSFT chief operating officer Stuart Richardson can still remember being told off by his ward manager for being "too friendly" with the patients shortly after qualifying as a learning disability nurse in 1993.
At the time, he was working in a large institution in Yorkshire, which had once been a workhouse, where patients were not allowed their own belongings, including clothes. Some patients had lived there all their lives.
Mr Richardson, who later gained a degree in learning disability studies while working as an LD nurse in the community, described that early period of his career as a "hard time" and welcomes the progress that has been made since.
"I'm pleased that we've moved away from a medical model to one where multidisciplinary teams care for people with a learning disability, and that we've advanced from advocacy to self-advocacy where service users and patients have more of a voice," he said.
"Learning disability nurses are trained to support the whole person, so it is no surprise to me that so many of our staff who qualified as RNLDs are now working so successfully in mental health, as well as in LD services."
After leaving sixth-form and before embarking on nurse training, Mr Richardson was a support worker for people with a learning disability at a care home in Norfolk.
"I hate inequalities and I wanted to support people who were disadvantaged and had few opportunities in life," he said.
"The fact that the smallest thing could make such a big difference, such as by allowing a service user decide what they want to eat or drink, or how they spend the day, was very satisfying."
Although Mr Richardson has spent his entire professional life supporting people with LD to various degrees, he says that is his current role he misses the clinical work and the day-to-day contact with service users and families.