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Article: People with Learning Disabilities


This article covers the following jobs:

  • Art Therapist
  • Care Assistant - Children
  • Clinical Psychologist
  • Dramatherapist
  • Educational Psychologist
  • Field Social Worker
  • Horticultural Therapist
  • Music Therapist
  • Nurse - Learning Disabilities
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Occupational Therapy Assistant
  • Physiotherapist
  • Physiotherapy Assistant
  • Special Educational Needs Teacher.

The job descriptions are only a brief summary. It is recommended that you do further research on jobs that interest you.


'Learning disability' is a general term, covering a wide range of disabilities that can make it more difficult for people to understand information, develop skills, adapt to new situations and live independently.

These include difficulties with:

  • Understanding, remembering and using language (eg, reading, writing, spelling, listening, speaking).
  • Noticing, processing and remembering information.
  • Reasoning.
  • Mathematical calculations.
  • Emotional development.
  • Getting muscles to perform physical tasks (motor co-ordination problems). For example, people may have difficulty in using the large muscles needed for walking, or the small muscles needed for writing or drawing.

Some people have several connected disabilities, while others have a single, specific disability. Most learning disabilities are caused by the way the brain develops before, during or soon after birth.


Rehabilitation workers enable people with learning disabilities to be as independent as possible. People employed in this field work with clients over a period of months, or even years, to help them adjust to their disability and become as independent as possible.


Physiotherapists assess and treat people who have difficulty with moving part of their body. They use a variety of treatments, including:

  • exercises to strengthen muscles and develop balance
  • massage and moving limbs and joints (manipulation)
  • relaxation techniques
  • hydrotherapy
  • deep heat.

Their patients include people with learning disabilities who might have problems with movement and balance. Other patients include older adults and people who have just had an operation in hospital.

An important area of the work is education and preventing injuries. For example, physiotherapists might work with expectant mothers, teaching them relaxation techniques and exercises to avoid backache.

To do this job, you'll need to complete an approved degree or postgraduate qualification in physiotherapy.

Occupational Therapy Assistant

Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) help people with illnesses, injuries and disabilities to overcome problems and be as independent as possible.

They help occupational therapists to work out what the client's needs are, working with the client. Assistants make sure that equipment such as grab rails and bath seats (aids and adaptations) are fitted in clients' houses properly and on time. They give clients support and advice in how to use aids and adaptations, and also give advice on other services that can help.

Other duties include teaching clients who have had accidents or strokes to re-learn living skills such as washing, dressing and cooking.

Employers might ask for some GCSEs (some specify grades A*-C), including English and Maths. Training is usually on-the-job, including lifting clients safely, aids and adaptations, and being aware of clients' needs.

Physiotherapy Assistant

Physiotherapy assistants help physiotherapists to treat patients, doing a number of jobs that are essential to the physiotherapist's work.

They look after patients on their arrival for treatment, set up and clear away equipment, work on exercises with patients and show them how to use mobility aids such as wheelchairs. They also have clerical duties such as booking appointments and writing notes.

During treatment, assistants help in moving and handling the patient. They can also take the patient through basic treatments and exercise programmes, according to the physiotherapist's instructions. Assistants can give advice to patients and carers on other services that might be available.

There are no set entry requirements. You might need four or more GCSEs to qualify for some more advanced work. Some entrants have relevant health and social care qualifications.

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists help people to deal with or overcome the physical, mental and social problems that can result from illness, injury and disability.

First, occupational therapists talk to clients and study them carefully, to find out which tasks they have difficulty with. The therapist writes a treatment plan based on the client's needs and expectations.

Then, they give advice, and plan and organise therapy. This could be one-to-one or in a group. For example, people who have been badly injured in accidents might need exercises to strengthen their muscles or regain their co-ordination. People with mental health problems might need therapy for anxiety or depression, or support while they build confidence in social or work situations.

Occupational therapists also advise on and arrange changes in the home that could make life easier, such as altering toilet seats and worktops for older adults or disabled people.

To become an occupational therapist, you need to complete a degree or postgraduate qualification in occupational therapy.

Psychology and teaching

Psychology is the scientific study of how people think and behave. Psychologists work in a variety of settings, putting their knowledge to practical use.

Special educational needs teachers work in both mainstream and special schools, with children of all ages, who have either learning or physical disabilities.

Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychologists use psychology to help people who have a wide range of mental and physical health issues. For example, they may work with people who have learning disabilities, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, challenging behaviour or emotional problems.

Before any treatment can begin, clinical psychologists use psychological knowledge and theory to assess patients' needs, abilities and behaviour. Treatment could include counselling, psychotherapy or stress management.

To register as a Chartered Clinical Psychologist, you should usually have completed a first degree in psychology, accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS). This is followed by postgraduate training.

Educational Psychologist

Educational psychologists study and treat the learning, behavioural and emotional issues of children and young people. These issues include learning disabilities, difficulties in reading and writing and challenging behaviour.

Educational psychologists assess a case by talking to and observing children at home and at school. They guide the child through tests and assessment techniques, and plan ways to help, such as counselling, family therapy sessions and different teaching methods.

Psychologists also work with parents and professionals who are involved in childcare and education. For example, training them in ways to support children with learning disabilities or handle challenging behaviour.

To register as a Chartered Educational Psychologist, you must usually have completed a first degree in psychology that is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS). You follow this with postgraduate training and experience.

Special Educational Needs Teacher

Special educational needs (SEN) teachers work with pupils who need extra support in their learning. For example, they work with pupils with sensory impairments, physical and learning disabilities, and challenging behaviour.

They help pupils to develop self-confidence and be as independent as possible.

Teaching approaches include using specialist equipment, such as computers and special desks, giving more one-to-one support, and using Braille or sign language.

To enter this career, you first need to qualify as a teacher. You can then take specialist training.

Care and support

A variety of health and social care services exist to support people with learning disabilities, and to enable them to live as full and independent a life as possible.

Nurse - Learning Disabilities

Learning disability nurses care for and support clients with learning disabilities. They also enable clients to develop personal and social skills, increasing their independence and self-esteem.

They work in a number of areas, including community care homes, day centres, schools and clients' own homes.

Learning disability nurses provide basic care for people with severe learning disabilities. They support them in tasks such as washing, dressing and feeding themselves, and going to the toilet.

Nurses also enable clients to develop everyday skills, to improve their personal and social well-being. For example, they might train clients to use kitchen equipment, so they can make a drink, or take them shopping to improve their confidence in making lists and handling money.

To become a nurse, you usually need to complete a degree in nursing. You would need to specialise in learning disabilities nursing during the course.

Field Social Worker

Field social workers help, protect and support people who are vulnerable or at risk, or have social, financial or emotional problems. They visit clients in the community, to offer advice, practical assistance and support.

Most local authorities have specialist teams of field social workers, dealing with specific issues or groups. For example, a field social worker may be part of a team specialising in people with physical or learning disabilities. Other groups and issues include child protection, people with mental health problems, older people and carers in the community.

To become a field social worker, you need to complete a degree in social work.

Care Assistant - Children

Care assistants provide basic personal care and social care to children and young people in a variety of settings, including special schools, day centres and residential care homes. They support children and young people with everyday tasks, as well as encouraging their social and personal development.

Usually working in a team, assistants plan and supervise activities that encourage the children to develop new skills and form relationships with each other.

Some care assistants work with children who have special needs, perhaps because of a physical or learning disability. Depending on the age and abilities of the child, a care assistant may help them to wash, dress, go to the toilet, and prepare or eat meals.

There is no formal academic entry requirement, but most entrants have relevant work experience (either on a paid or voluntary basis) in a care environment; some have a relevant social care qualification.

Creative therapies

People working in therapeutic jobs learn to work with different client groups and may then go on to specialise in one of these, eg, people with learning or physical disabilities, or mental health problems.

Horticultural Therapist

Horticultural therapists use gardening to help people improve their health, become more confident and gain new skills. For example, they work with disabled people, older adults, and people who have illnesses or injuries.

Gardening can help people in lots of ways. For example:

  • exercise can help people with injuries get their strength back
  • achieving goals builds people's confidence
  • working in teams develops friendships and people skills.

Therapists plan gardening activities that will most help each client. It's important that they work closely with the client, recording their achievements, and teaching them new skills.

Some entrants have backgrounds in horticulture or areas like social work, teaching or nursing. You can also take short courses and professional qualifications in social and horticultural therapy.

Music Therapist

Music therapists use sounds and music to help people with physical, mental, social and emotional difficulties. Music can help people to explore their personalities and experiences, communicate feelings and develop confidence.

Music therapy is not about teaching music or judging the client's musical ability. Instead, it is about using music freely to explore feelings and express emotions.

Depending on the client's needs, music therapists could be working with them one-to-one or in a group.

To become a music therapist, you must complete a recognised postgraduate course in music therapy.

Art Therapist

Art therapists use art to help people with learning disabilities, and physical, mental, social and emotional problems. Art can help people to express themselves, explore their feelings and overcome problems.

The therapist encourages the client to use a variety of art materials, such as paint, clay or textiles, to express emotions that they are unable, or find difficult, to communicate in speech.

The therapist tries to create an atmosphere in which the client feels comfortable and unafraid to express themselves. The point is not about the client being a 'good artist'.

Most art therapists work for the NHS or social services departments.

To become an art therapist, you need to complete a postgraduate Master's degree in art therapy or art psychotherapy.


Dramatherapists use drama to help people with physical, mental, social and emotional difficulties. Through drama, people can explore their personalities and experiences, communicate feelings and overcome social problems.

When the dramatherapist first meets a client, they will listen and talk to them, assessing their problem and deciding on the most appropriate type of dramatherapy to use with them.

Depending on the client's needs, they could be working with them in a group or one-to-one.

Dramatherapy could involve stories, mime, role plays, movement and dance, or improvisations.

For the client, the point is not about being a good actor or putting on a show for other people. The process of creating drama is a type of therapy and can help the client in many ways.

To become a dramatherapist, you'll need to complete a recognised postgraduate qualification in dramatherapy.

Further Information


Address: The Geoffrey Udall Centre, Beech Hill, Reading, Berkshire RG7 2AT

Tel: 0118 9885688



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