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‘Be brave, be fearless and always listen’

Helen Laverty is the leading light behind the Positive Choices conference

The annual Positive Choices conference for learning disability students is heading for Dublin in April and this year it has been expanded to include an event for registered nurses called Positive Commitment. Helen Laverty, professional lead for learning disability nursing at the University of Nottingham, is the leading light behind the conference. Here she explains her passion for learning disability nursing


Helen Laverty

Why did you become a learning disability nurse?

I was 14 and school had a curriculum change: no more compulsory religious education but everyone had to do ‘beliefs and values’ which included some placement time. I was allocated every Wednesday for a term in a special school in 1975. Learning disabilities had not crossed my horizons then, or that of my family.

I turned up the next morning full of trepidation but excited, and was allocated to a class of rising seven year olds – and I was hooked. But I had one burning question about why some kids had lovely socks and others had grey, nylon ones? The teacher explained that every child I pointed out lived in the long stay hospital just across the way. I could not understand this as they were not poorly; and where were their mummies and daddies? So, I asked if I could go and see where they lived.

The next week the nurses, who came to take the children ‘home’, invited me to go too. The children were just as excited to see the nurses as the others waiting for their mums or taxis.

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

School was not supportive. 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 I have always done my best and led by example. I went into education because I needed a bigger audience, and now I have 30 years’ experience.

Where did you train?

Harmston Hall Hospital, Lincolnshire.

Where have you worked previously?

After qualifying I worked in a locked ward for men with severe learning disabilities. It was not a real choice, it was the rotation I was offered, but, once I'd found my feet and voice, I loved it. I hope I made big changes. I have worked in children’s services, respite, human development, and opened the first group home in Lincolnshire.

What is the greatest challenge?

Prejudice – being disabled by association. I want the whole nursing profession to strengthen its commitment to people with a learning disability and to learning disability nurses as well.

What qualities do you think a good learning disability nurse should possess?

The ability to listen to the vibe of their tribe. To think globally but act locally and to network. A desire to change the way people are measured and the courage of that conviction.

Who inspires you?

The practitioners who make such a difference, and every student who decides to be a learning disability nurse. The families who share their experience to ensure we can deliver the best service to a wider audience.

Emily Smith, who has Down’s syndrome and is an expert by experience at the University of Nottingham, who has changed the way I explore the lived experience of living with a learning disability and is the most natural group facilitator I have worked with.

I am also proud to be the chair of their trustees of the Down’s Heart Group

What advice would you give a newly-qualified learning disability nurse?

Be brave, be fearless and always listen to the vibe of your tribe because together we are better.

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