Study Nursing (Learning Disabilities) or Occupational Therapy at Edinburgh Napier University

Discover a route to two highly rewarding careers by studying Occupational Therapy or nursing for those with learning disabilities at Edinburgh Napier University.

The university in the heart of Edinburgh offers two courses that can take your career in a number of different directions – all of them challenging, stimulating and worthwhile.

You can choose to pursue an MSc in Occupational Therapy, in which you will gain the professional knowledge and skills required to register as an Occupational Therapist with the Health and Care Professions Council.

Or you can opt for a BN degree in Nursing (Learning Disabilities), giving you an academic qualification and the vocational training to become a registered nurse.

What does a learning disability nurse do?

“A learning disability nurse is primarily there to ensure that people with learning disabilities have access to healthcare,” says Jacqueline Taylor, Lecturer in Learning Disabilities Nursing at ENU. “People with learning disabilities experience a lot of health inequalities for lots of different reasons, so we have a major role to play in making sure they can access the health services that they need.”

Up to 90 per cent of people with learning disabilities have some form of communication need, she explains, which makes it difficult for them to understand their own health or report how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing.

“You have to be really creative with your thinking. A big part of our role is identifying people’s health needs in the first instance, or helping them identify their health needs, then making sure they can be supported to have those needs addressed,” she adds.

“If someone is unable to tell you verbally what’s going on then you have to be a kind of detective – you might just uncover something really small, but it can make a really massive difference to the health outcomes of someone with a learning disability as well as to their day-to-day comfort.”

How can they make a difference?

“People with learning disabilities die, on average, about 20 years before the general population and when they do, they have between seven and ten existing health conditions,” explains Jacqueline, which is why a learning disability nurse can play such a significant role in addressing these health inequalities.

“There’s also an assumption that it’s just their learning disability so there’s no investigation into someone’s health – we call it diagnostic overshadowing in practice. People assume, well, they have a learning disability, that's why they behave in a certain way. But they’re actually trying to communicate ill physical health or mental health distress, so you have to be creative, you have to be patient. You have to be willing to sometimes work in unconventional ways and be quite open-minded.”

And what is the role of an occupational therapist?

“Occupational therapists support people to find or to rediscover purpose in their lives, and to enable people to do the things they want to do, need to do or have to,” explains Fiona Maclean, Head of Subject Allied Health and Social Care Sciences and Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy.

Dr Fiona McLean, Programme Leader for Allied Health, Edinburgh NapierDr Fiona McLean, Programme Leader for Allied Health, Edinburgh Napier
Dr Fiona McLean, Programme Leader for Allied Health, Edinburgh Napier

“Often it is about helping people to overcome challenges in their lives to support their ability to go to school, return to work or to build a sense of belonging as part of their communities.”

She adds: “We are called occupational therapists because we concentrate on supporting engagement with occupations people identify as important to them. An occupation is any activity people do that is important to them and can help to look after our physical and mental health, and our emotional wellbeing.

“It might be activities connected to our self-care such as washing, eating or sleeping. It might be about how we can be productive, such as going to work, school, caring for others, and it can also be about how we use our leisure time, such as playing sport, hobbies or meeting friends and family.”

Edinburgh and its surrounding areas have been a significant location for occupational therapy professional development over the past century. During the first world war, Edinburgh Napier University’s Craiglockhart campus was a military psychiatric hospital for officers suffering from ‘shell shock’ (renowned war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were patients there).

The hospital was known for its ‘work cure’, elements of which can be traced to the development of occupational therapy as we know it today, which is why the institution aims to continue this tradition of occupational therapy professional development.

What are the separate career paths that open up?

Learning disability nurses work with children and adults. You might find a role with a community learning disability team, which sit within the health and social care partnerships across Scotland, or you could join an inpatient team working with adults with a learning disability in a dedicated centre, often with people with more complex needs.

And there are also intermediate teams who work more intensively with people in their homes, and with their care group or their parents or whoever it may be caring for them, to prevent hospital admission. The work also encompasses mental health as well as physical health; up to 40 per cent of people with learning disabilities have a mental health concern as well.

“All of those teams are multidisciplinary which makes it a great way to work,” adds Jacqueline. "And it’s changing too: learning disability nurses are beginning to work in other areas, such as within prison healthcare or in special schools or even in acute hospitals to support the staff there.

“Wherever someone with a learning disability goes for health, then we should be available to them to support their needs.”

“Occupational therapy is a fantastic career which supports people to live their best life at home, at work – as part of communities. It is such a wide and varied career with so many different opportunities, working with adults and children of all ages and often with a wide range of conditions,” says Fiona. 

Occupational therapists can work in the NHS - supporting rehabilitation with older people, with people who have experienced injury, or in mental health settings - as well as in community settings. “It might be working with people with physical disabilities and long-term conditions or perhaps with people at the end of life,” she adds. “Increasingly, occupational therapists are also employed in a wide range of different settings such as charities or universities to support student wellbeing, for example, or in private practice or to set up their own social enterprises to support mental health and wellbeing.”

Train to make a difference to people’s lives

There are so many reasons why you should consider coming to ENU to study occupational therapy, enthuses Fiona. “We have an incredible academic team who are committed to our students and who possess expertise in a range of different fields from children and young people, dementia, mental health and displaced people. 

“We have fantastic facilities which range from our clinical skills labs where we practise skills and put knowledge learned into practice in a safe and friendly environment. We also have a creative space where we learn about group work, or how we can use technology to support people to live independently: this year we have introduced the students to robotic technologies and how robots might be able to be used when working with people living with dementia, for example.

“You will have the opportunity to undertake practice education, where you will work with occupational therapists in a range of settings across Scotland, and we can also support you to travel internationally or elsewhere in the UK if you would like.

“We also work very closely with our colleagues in physiotherapy and social work to build a real sense of interdisciplinary community which is second to none!”

As Jacqueline points out, people often know about learning disability nurses if they have a friend or relative who has had accessed their help, but she says it's a complex and fascinating area that's richly rewarding for people of all ages from all backgrounds.

“It’s really hard to capture what we do in a photograph, so often only a few people know what we do because we don’t wear uniforms. But the biggest plus, as well as helping to tackle health inequalities, is that you very rarely work in isolation, and I think that's a really important, exciting part of the job – which is why I did it for 35 years until I moved to university to teach others.”

Find out more today

Interested in occupational therapy? Visit to find out more about this full-time, two-year post-graduate course.

Or if you think a career in learning disabilities nursing might suit you, find out more about the qualifications you need and how to apply at

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