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Passing the baton to the next generation of learning disability nurses

Thirty six years on and with change round every corner, what can the new cohort of nurses bring?

With 36 years of experience in learning disability nursing Mary Dearing has seen plenty of change, here she discusses why this time of year is so poignant for her


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As a lecturer in learning disability nursing this is my favourite time of year, 

It is a time when we celebrate with our year three students as they progress to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register and we welcome a new cohort of students, eager with anticipation as they take the first step into their careers as nurses.

Despite the recruitment crisis in nursing, we continue to attract cohorts of students determined to address the health inequalities experienced by people with learning disabilities.

Twilight years

This time of year also makes me reflect on why I began nursing, and this year is more poignant as I enter the twilight years of my career. Our new students will probably be the last cohort I will see through their programme to graduation. I chose to apply to become a learning disability nurse following an experience where I helped a young woman to swim. I remember as I helped her from a wheelchair into the water, she became animated as her movements were no longer restricted and she took great pleasure splashing other swimmers making as much noise as she could. She will never know the impact she had on my career choice and on my first day on clinical placement my decision was confirmed. Up until then, I was a round peg in a square hole.  

'Over the past 36 years I have seen a dramatic change in how services are delivered'

My nursing career experience has been diverse. Over the past 36 years I have seen a dramatic change in how services are delivered. I began my career in a long-stay hospital in 1982 and, while I would not condone returning to this model of service, what I learned was that every patient, despite their level of ability, how they looked, behaved or communicated, was accepted unconditionally by those who cared for them.

WATCH: Video highlights from Positive Choices 2017

In that environment, people were not judged or stigmatised but accepted for who they were. With the advent of community care and the closure of long-stay hospitals this perception changed and people with a learning disability were invariably viewed by the general public as different.

In class 36 years later, I often speak of these experiences and explore with students how, over time, services have developed and how, as nurses, we must be instrumental in these changes. As each cohort progresses to the NMC register, I speculate where their careers will take them and how far services will develop during their professional lives.

'Baton of hope'

I draw a parallel with a relay race. The first athlete leaves the starting blocks clutching a baton which passes to the next athlete and so it is in nursing, with each cohort of students we pass a baton with a message of hope that they will take on the next part of the race and develop services further to positively improve the lives of people with learning disabilities and their families.

In 2017 the University of Hull hosted the national student learning disability nursing conference Positive Choices and we used the baton concept to demonstrate how each generation of nurses was prepared for their roles and helped change and develop practice. The baton started with a colleague who began her career in 1979 and concluded with a student of today whose baton was held fittingly by her beautiful daughter who has Down's syndrome.

So, as I hand our baton to our new student cohort, I reflect on what message I want to be my legacy. Perhaps it is right back to where I started, that people with learning disability will have unconditional acceptance.  


About the author

Mary Dearing is a lecturer in learning disability nursing, faculty of health science, University of Hull  

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