I am Owen, Professor of Nursing and Intellectual Disability.

I put people at the centre of everything. My students,
collaborators, and people with learning disabilities. I am not
afraid to challenge the status quo and will persevere to drive
change and improve practice.

I do this to make sure people with learning disabilities get access
to healthcare, helping them to lead happy, healthy lives.


I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, I don’t
remember ever wanting to be anything
else. I had two brothers with learning
disabilities, who both died when they
were young children. I find learning
disability nursing really exciting, it gives
me so many opportunities to make
decisions and make a difference in the
lives of people with learning disabilities.

I’ve often wondered what my career
would’ve been like if I’d stayed in England.
But when I got back, this was home. I’ve
worked across Northern Ireland, but I’ve
spent most of my time living in
Derry~Londonderry. And to me, that gives
a really clear focus to what I do. I can get
very passionate about developing things
in Northern Ireland and making sure
Northern Ireland is represented in the UK.
It was about developing nursing, but it
was also about a new future.

The longer I stayed in education, the more
I realised I probably had more influence
over practice, both through the networks
I’ve built up and through the practice of
the students. I realised I can probably
achieve more as an educator than I can as
a single nurse. I like the challenge of
changing practice, it gives me a buzz.

A nurse in learning disabilities will be
looking for the person’s abilities rather
than their disabilities, and how you can
develop them and make the person more
independent. They are always looking for
solutions – there is an answer, we just
need to find a way to do it. It may take us
several weeks or months, but that’s okay.
It’s that resilience and determination to
keep going.

We pick practice-based learning with
people with learning disabilities. But we
always pick areas where people with
learning disabilities are able to show their
skills. And the students go to work in
those areas because it’s really important
that they see all the things that people
with learning disabilities can do. So if they
then meet somebody with learning
disabilities who’s unwell, they have a
comparison they make. We have much
more success by putting people in contact
with people with learning disabilities than
we do by standing in front and teaching
the class.

Early in my career I was keen to introduce
specialist nurses in intellectual disability.
So I set myself a challenge – could I show
why we needed a nurse in intellectual
disability? I decided to stop talking and to
show them. I decided if I don’t convince
them in six months I will leave. And that’s
probably the way I work most of the time,
I’m very much about trying to show people
what’s possible and what can be done.

A big part of our job is to enable people
with learning disabilities to access general
healthcare services – hospitals, primary
care, mental health services – which
means that we need to know about those
services and build networks with the
people providing that care. And we
need to be able to spot changes in a person’s
physical and mental health.

My research initially looked at the
attitudes of staff towards people with
learning disabilities, then became more
focused on what the fixes are and how we
can change things. That research led to
development of a set of guidelines about
supporting people with a learning
disability in hospital, which then led to the
introduction of the Health Passport and
the role of the liaison nurse.

The Health Passport improves access to
healthcare as it helps people with learning
disabilities be understood. We have
research now that shows it makes a
difference, and having one consistent
version across all of Northern Ireland has
been a big part of that. It was very, very
important to involve people with learning
disabilities in the development of a
passport, to get them to test it, to check it
said what they wanted. To make sure it has
enough information, but not too much.

An acute liaison nurse is a registered nurse
in learning disability who works in a
general hospital. They support people
with learning disabilities and their families
when they’re coming in the hospital,
either as a planned admission or in an
emergency. A critical part of that is the
multi-sensory room, a safe place for
somebody with learning disability to sit
without being overstimulated by all the
noise and movement going on around them.

I’ve been really interested in what I’ve
been able to do in nursing over the years.
Setting up specialist practice courses,
introducing practice learning in learning
disability into all of our nursing
programmes at an undergraduate level, to
teach learning disabilities on
postgraduate courses that normally
wouldn’t have had it, to have people with
learning disabilities in those courses and
the teams planning those courses. If I look
back, the thing I’m most proud of is
raising the profile of nursing and
learning disability.

For me, the success of education is when
your students know more than you do. I
mean, I am currently managed by
somebody who was my student, which I
think is brilliant.

There wasn’t a BSc Honours paramedic
course in Northern Ireland, and it always
struck me as a missed opportunity. We
had people who were really competent
paramedics, but they weren’t getting any
academic award. So a few months ago we
launched our first BSc Honours paramedic
course. And as you would expect, because
I’ve written it, one of their first placements
is with people with learning disabilities…

I had the opportunity to put in a tender
for a competence test centre with the
Nursing and Midwifery Council, for nurses
who had trained outside of Europe to
work in the UK. We won it and started off
with examining maybe 25 candidates a
month, now we’re examining over 800
candidates a month. To me, those are the
things that give me the buzz, doing things
that haven’t been possible before.

I used to have a manager who would
always ask ‘what’s keeping you awake at
night?’ And when I’m trying to influence
someone I sit down and think what’s
keeping them awake at night, and how
can I help them sleep better?
So I’m always trying to present what I
want to do in a way that it will help them
achieve their objectives.

To me, the core of what I do is about
people. Nursing isn’t about the condition,
it’s about the person. And there are
challenges in doing that because
sometimes when you’re talking about
people with learning disabilities, there’s a
lot of assumptions made that people with
learning disabilities can’t do things.

My students always laugh and tease me,
because I think language is really, really
important. For example, we’ve just written
a new BSc course and I set myself a
challenge to write a new course without
using the word ‘patient’. So we aren’t
going to see any patients, we’re only
going to see people.

By embedding that very early on we get
people to constantly look at the person,
not the condition.

Sometimes people with learning
disabilities will become very distressed.
Other people might say ‘difficult’. If we
look at it from where that person is, they
might be in an environment where they’re
very frightened, so we need to manage
the environment to support them, to
reassure them, to take away some of the
distress. And you can’t just lose sight of
the fact that this is a person you’re
working with.

The challenge is ours. The challenge is not
the fault of the person with learning
disability. If you keep looking at it that
way, you start looking for solutions.