Health and people with learning disabilities: 3 myths busted | Blogs

This week is Learning Disability Awareness Week, and the focus for this year is on busting some of the myths concerning people with learning disabilities, their lives and abilities. I want to take the opportunity in this blog to bust some of the myths relating to the health needs of people with learning disabilities.

The myth: People with learning disabilities have different health needs to their non-disabled peers.

The truth: People with learning disabilities experience the same range of health needs as other people, but they may differ in terms of the frequency with which they are experienced and their presentation. Their health needs may not be recognised and hence not addressed. This can lead to avoidable health problems or delayed treatment. They are also often at greater risk of exposure to factors that impact negatively on their health (for example, poverty and unemployment).

The myth: People with learning disabilities have a high pain threshold, don’t experience pain or don’t experience it in the same way as other people.

The truth: As with other people, those with learning disabilities will vary in terms of how they experience pain. But unlike others, they might not be able to communicate it in ways that other people understand, and their pain may therefore be missed. For example, a change in a person’s behaviour may be interpreted as them being ‘difficult’, when it is their only way of communicating their discomfort. Specialist pain assessment tools are available to help and those who know an individual well will often be able to identify when they’re in pain.

The myth: People with learning disabilities have equal access to health services as other citizens.

The truth: We have a growing body of evidence that people with learning disabilities experience significant inequities that can lead to premature and avoidable deaths. Barriers preventing access include a lack of knowledge on the part of health professionals, miscommunication, organisational issues, such as appointment times, and discrimination.

I could probably go on to list many more myths but hopefully you get the picture.

What is important to remember is that if deaths are avoidable, it means that actions can (and should) be taken and this is where nurses and midwives can have a significant impact. Some nurses, like me, choose to specialise in the field of learning disability nursing. Much of our role includes the promotion of the health and wellbeing of those we work alongside. However, most people with a learning disability will not have regular contact with a learning disability nurse. They will be using primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare services alongside the rest of the population. They may not even be recognised as having a learning disability. As the largest group of healthcare professionals, all nurses and midwives have a professional duty to increase their knowledge of the health needs of people with learning disabilities to ensure equitable, timely and safe access to services that meet their needs. Recognising these myths, challenging them, understanding the evidence and using this to inform practice are all important and necessary steps to take.

Learning Disability Awareness Week only lasts seven days but the barriers to healthcare that people with learning disabilities face are year-round. This means that there are 52 weeks each year for nurses and midwives to make a positive difference. What difference will you make?

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