Learning Disability Week – Laura’s story

Posted: 20/06/24

Laura Whitaker is Associate Director for learning disabilities and autism at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW).

She’s responsible for ensuring the smooth running of autism inpatient services, as well as community learning disability teams in Northumberland and learning disability physio teams in both Northumberland and North Tyneside.

Laura qualified as a learning disability nurse in 2001. She landed her first job working in a community home in Houghton-le-Spring before moving to a ward at Monkwearmouth Hospital in Sunderland.

She then moved to St Nicholas Hospital, working with children and young people.

At the time, there wasn’t a dedicated ward for young people with learning disabilities in medium secure services. Children’s services wanted to attract learning disability nurses, something Laura describes as a big advantage for her career.

“This gave me experience in working with people with both mental health issues and learning disabilities,” she said.

Jobs on other adolescent wards followed before Laura secured a managerial role in the Trust’s Children and Young People’s Services (CYPS).

She went on to manage teams at CNTW’s Gender Dysphoria Service, was a clinical manager for adult specialist services and worked in the Trust’s Gold Command during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When she started her current role back at Northgate, Laura says it was like coming full circle. “What attracted me most to this post was that it felt like coming back to where it all began,” she explained.

“I did my training and student placements on this site, so it feels like I’ve come back to my roots.

“A lot of staff I worked with when I was a student are still here, 25 years later. People are really invested in the service and the patient group we work with, which is lovely to see.”

When Laura was younger, she didn’t know what she wanted to do as a career. She was studying for her A Levels and had a place to do a degree in fashion design.

“I’d thought of being a nurse when I was a kid and one of my friends was doing nursing,” she said.

“I didn’t think general nursing would be my cup of tea. My aunty worked in a school and I’d done a few weeks of work experience there assisting children with learning disabilities. That had sparked my interest in learning disability nursing, so I applied for a course and loved it.”

For Laura, working with people with learning disabilities comes with its own unique challenges. “A lot of the care and treatment isn’t about finding a cure or solution, it’s about education and learning,” she explained.

“It’s not an area of nursing that’s easy and it can be disappointing to see there’s not always an appetite for learning disability nursing. I think it has had a negative perception.”

But it’s the opportunity to build relationships with people that Laura most enjoys about the job.

“People with learning disabilities are often in services for a longer period of time. This allows us to build longer-lasting therapeutic relationships.

“There can be a sense of injustice around the way people with learning disabilities are treated and it’s so rewarding to be able to support people who are vulnerable.”

Laura believes learning disability nurses are at an advantage because of their communication skills. Working with people who often struggle to articulate means they might pick up nuances that others have missed.

She says she would encourage anyone thinking of becoming a learning disability nurse to go for it.

“You have to have a real passion for it,” she said.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career and the opportunities I’ve had. If I had my time again, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

“I’ve got a great network of colleagues and friends with shared experiences. I’m proud to be a learning disability nurse.”