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Professor of Nursing and Intellectual Disabilities

Career Pathway

Career Directions

  • Research & Development
  • Education
  • Policy/Strategy Development

Area of Practice

  • Learning Disability Nursing


  • Education Provider

Job/Role Summary

As a Professor of Nursing and Intellectual Disabilities, I have a varied role, including active involvement in teaching, research and wider strategic developments in relation to nurse education and services for people with learning disabilities. As an educator, I am the pathway leader for the Nursing and Midwifery Council approved Specialist Practice Nursing courses in Community Nursing, Learning Disability and Specialist Practice Nursing Learning Disabilities. I also teach within other undergraduate and post graduate nursing programmes. My teaching is largely focused on supporting people with learning disabilities and their families, as well as leadership and decision making within nursing.

The research I am involved with largely focuses on access to a range of general health care for people with learning disabilities, the impact of a person with learning disability within families and the experience of receiving personal genetic information. Within my role I also have the opportunity to lead some regional developments, including being the Chair of the Regional Collaborative on Nursing people with learning disabilities and the Chair of the Regional General Hospitals Forum: Learning Disabilities, which led the development of the HSC Regional Hospital Passport for people with learning disabilities. I have also been a member of the Nursing and Midwifery Council groups that developed the Standards for Pre- Registration Nursing in 2010 and the revised standards that will be launched in 2018.


Specific qualifications and experience required

I started my nursing career as a Registered General Nurse and then completed a Registered Nurse Learning Disability qualification. After working as a Staff Nurse for a few years I undertook a Community Nursing course in the relation to people with learning disabilities and then worked as a Community Nurse for a year before moving to nurse education, initially in two colleges of nursing and then moving to the university when I had completed my BSc Hons Professional Development in Nursing.

When I commenced working as a university lecturer in nursing I had a teaching qualification. After joining Ulster University, I took the opportunity to complete a MSc Guidance and Counselling and a PhD a few years later. At present, most universities require people in permanent posts as lecturers to have completed or be in the process of completing a post graduate qualification, normally a MSc or PhD and to also have scholarly or research output at a national / international level.


Career Milestones

Although I started my career as a Registered General Nurse and loved it, for me a major milestone was becoming a Registered Nurse Learning Disabilities (RNLD). My passion has been within learning disability, but the links and understanding I have through being a RGN have provided excellent opportunities for collaboration. Another major milestone for me was obtaining my PhD, with a focus on families of people with learning disabilities that grew out of being a Community Nurse Learning Disabilities (CNLD) and the links this gave me to wider genetic services.

The 10 years I was Head of School of Nursing at Ulster consolidated the networks I had nationally with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and I was able as an RNLD to make a contribution focused on people with learning disability within NMC education work streams. I was also a member of the Central Nursing and Midwifery Advisory Group at the Department of Health, which involved quarterly meetings with the Chief Nursing Officer and other senior nurse leaders across all nursing services in Northern Ireland. Throughout all of these opportunities I have always been very positive about the contribution RNLDs can make to the wider discussions in nursing and how we can bring insights about person centredness, consent, decision making, risk and empowerment that are very valuable.


What attracted you to this job?

The opportunity to make a real difference in a practical day to day way to the lives of people with learning disabilities and their families. This was my main motivation as a staff nurse and a community nurse and remains key to my work. Although, I now have fewer opportunities for day to day nursing work as it may be traditionally seen, I continue to focus my work on things that I think will make a difference in a practical way. I also value working in an interdisciplinary team and learning from other people about how services could collaborate to achieve even more for people with learning disabilities. I have made many friends with people with learning disabilities and very much value the enthusiasm, determination to succeed and honesty that I see among individuals. It has helped me realise what is important in life many times, especially when I take time to watch and listen.


Enjoyable aspects of the job/role

I have always enjoyed the opportunities to work as an autonomous nurse, doing detailed nursing assessments, making decisions about priorities, planning care along with people with learning disabilities and families and then communicating that to other colleagues and interdisciplinary team members. In nursing services for people with learning disabilities many of the decisions that need to be made are complex, professional judgements and not always suited to standardised protocols. Recently a nursing colleague from another field of practice commented to me that RNLDs often do not work in black and white, we are more in shades of grey; my answer was I prefer to view it that we work in technicolour and see all the important things rather than work in shades of grey. 


Important success factors

For me the only starting point for effective nursing interventions remains to be a focus on the person with learning disabilities and their families, their current situation, their aspirations for the future and what they think is important. I continue to believe in the positive difference you can make working with people if you persist, especially in the days you feel you are not making progress.

I have always seen myself as first and foremost a registered nurse, who works in services to support people with learning disabilities, I continue to draw on the values of nursing and the support of nursing colleagues to remain grounded in what really matters.

Ensure you learn about services across Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and internationally in order to help you see the wider perspectives. Services in Northern Ireland have many strengths and much to share with other places, but if you only know your local services you will restrict your opportunities for learning, growth and influence.


Advice for those considering the type of job/role?

Have high aspirations and believe you can influence well beyond your specific role in services for people with learning disabilities. Think about what you want to do in the future and take steps to prepare for opportunities, learn to recognise opportunities to develop new knowledge and skills and take these opportunities when they arise. Look for and take opportunities to join groups that can influence services and policies, both within services for people with learning disabilities and across wider health and social care services.

Value your nursing foundation and build on this, take all the opportunities to learn more about nursing policy and service development using this to positively influence discussions and developments. You will be surprised by the success you will be able to achieve when you believe you can.  


Key skills that can be gained within this job/role?

You will learn a lot about people when working as a registered nurse in services for people with learning disabilities, this will include learning about people with learning disabilities, families, nursing and other colleagues from the interdisciplinary team. As a RNLD, we have a detailed understanding of behaviour and the importance of effective communication. I believe this knowledge and skills can be drawn upon when working in many situations that can be challenging, and is not limited to working with people with learning disabilities.

As a Professor and nurse leader, I have had to become skilled working collaboratively, building regional and national networks within and well beyond services for people with learning disabilities. I am continuing to learn how to find ways forward and be solution focused, alongside more specific skills in conflict resolution and negotiation, as well as keeping my knowledge, skills, and research up to date in order to continue to be an effective educator.

To be an effective leader, I have also found I need to learn to see a wider picture and understand strategic factors that may not appear immediately obvious, but which may need to be taken into consideration. It has been important to take time to study and learn about leadership, reading and learning from many sources outside of nursing, including successful private businesses and independent sector organisations that often have well developed approaches to leadership, succession planning and supporting colleagues.


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