Caring for people with learning disabilities

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What is a learning disability?

A learning disability affects the way a person understands information and how they communicate. Individuals may have difficulty in: 

  • understanding new or complex information
  • learning new skills
  • coping independently.

For people with learning disabilities, these needs will have onset before the age of 18, affecting formative years and development.

They often have significantly higher health needs, which are commonly unmet and not recognised, and result in premature deaths.

Duty of care

All health services must ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to ensure that people with a learning disability have equal access to health care. Recommended adjustments include:

  • access to a registered nurse in learning disabilities
  • information in a format accessible to the person
  • longer appointment times
  • managing environmental factors
  • providing funded additional support
  • undertake an assessment of risks and support needs by speaking to the people that know them well.

Diagnostic overshadowing

This occurs when a clinician attributes symptoms or behaviours to a person’s learning disability rather than another medical cause. Caring for people with learning disabilities Consent No-one can consent on behalf of an adult with a learning disability unless they have been appointed as a deputy by the Court of Protection. Parents or support staff should not be asked to consent on the person’s behalf. Instead the Best Interest process must be followed if an individual is assessed as unable to make a decision in line with legislation relating to consent.


It is important that you listen to the person, their family members and/or care staff and ensure information is provided in the person’s preferred format. This may include easier-read content, large print text, sign language and/or pictures. Review the person’s records to ensure the correct method is used.

Hospital/health passports

The person using the health service may be able to provide you with their hospital passport which will contain vital information on how best to support them.

Living arrangements

No two people with learning disabilities are the same, and there are many diferent ways people receive support in order to live independently. Some will live on their own or with family. Some people live in supported living settings or residential care and there are new evolving models of support too. Explore with the person and their direct support what support they receive, as this may have implications for meeting any ongoing health needs or discharge planning.