Is it time to retire the title learning disability nurse?

The title learning disability nurse has been used since the 1990s, but some feel the field needs a more contemporary name to reflect changing times

Time for change written in sand on a beach
Picture: iStock

Is it time for a name change? RCN professional lead in learning disabilities and neuroscience nursing Jonathan Beebee believes so.

In his article Learning disability nurse: is the title still fit for purpose? he argues that learning disability nursing is an outdated term that could be a barrier to a person’s career. He also says that a change might attract and retain more people into the profession, which the evidence shows is badly needed.

Mr Beebee also argues that the title registered nurse in neurodisability is more contemporary and fits in with the growing popularity of terms such as neurodiversity and neurodivergence.

In terms of language, history shows that we have come a long way.

Mental deficiency was the term used in 1919 when the first nurses in the specialty were registered. This title was later replaced by mental subnormality and then mental handicap before learning disability nursing was adopted in the 1990s.

People with learning disabilities die from avoidable causes twice as often as the general population

Internationally other countries use different terms, notably Ireland which uses intellectual disability and the US where the term intellectual and developmental disability was adopted.

Language may change but, sadly, we still have a long way to go in terms of the care people with learning disabilities receive and in outcomes.

The latest Learning from Lives and Deaths of People with Learning Disabilities and Autistic People (LeDeR) report shows that, while there has been some progress – the median age of death of adults in 2022 was 62.9 years, compared to 61.8 years in 2018 – people with learning disabilities are still dying from avoidable causes almost twice as often as those in the general population. Add living in a deprived area and coming from a minority ethnic community and the picture is worse still.

Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, followed by cancer are the most common causes of avoidable deaths according to the latest report.

What is also clear from LeDeR, though, is that the risk of premature death reduces if the care being provided is good and includes appropriate reasonable adjustments.

You can join in the debate about name change in the comment section below.

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