Reflecting on Learning Disability Week 2023: thank you from National Director for Learning Disability and Autism Tom Cahill

The theme of Learning Disability Week 2023 has been busting myths about the lives that people with a learning disability live, and showing the world the amazing things that they achieve. At NHS England we are fortunate to work with lived experience learning disability, autism and family carer advisors and the week is always a welcome opportunity to celebrate them and the amazing contribution they make to our work.

All week we have been showing how the NHS is helping people to live longer, happier healthier lives by supporting staff and the families of people with a learning disability to provide the right care and support.

Amongst the many inspiring stories, we’ve heard, I’ve been moved by the story of nurses at Leeds Teaching Hospital who started a scheme to support parents of babies with Down Syndrome. The Welcome to the World suitcases are given to new parents to help them and their babies have a great start in life.

On Wednesday I visited University Hospitals of Leicester with Chief Nursing Officer Ruth May, to meet DFN Project Search graduates who have completed a one-year internship to support people with a learning disability and autistic people into employment. This was a truly inspiring event especially in the knowledge that many already have secured employment in the trust. We also learnt more about the work that they are doing at the trust to reduce health inequalities and improve access to services for the most vulnerable in their communities.

On Thursday I had the pleasure of visiting learning disability and autism services at Midlands University Partnership Foundation Trust, meeting with Specialist Care group staff and community teams. Followed by a visit on Friday to the Ealing Community Team for People with Learning Disabilities (CTPLD) and the Ealing Short Breaks Service to find out more about the work they are doing to avoid admission and reduce inpatient numbers. Thank you all for everything you are doing.

I know that colleagues across the country are working hard to support people with a learning disability and autistic people who are in the community or are in hospital. We are continuing to discharge people to their future homes who have been in hospital for a long time. In fact, almost 10,000 people with a learning disability or who are autistic, or both having been discharged since 2015. Additionally in 2022/23, our housing capital fund has been invested in schemes that are supporting 86 people to leave hospital and move into their own home. This year more people than ever have had an annual health check with a national average of 78% of those eligible having had one.

At a local, regional, and national level we’re working closely with our colleagues in social care and housing, as we know that so often people can’t leave hospital as they are waiting for suitable accommodation that is right for their needs.

We know there is more to do. We know that too often people are admitted without the opportunity to alternative support, to enable them to stay at home with their families. We continue to work hard across the country to develop sustainable community-based services using the national £121 million development fund provided over the last three years to provide real alternatives for people who need additional support. This includes establishment of intensive support teams and key worker service for children and young people with a learning disability or those who are autistic.

This week like many others I am reminded of the fantastic work people are doing up and down the country to improve the lives of people with a learning disability or autistic people and thank you for that. However, this week more than any other I am reminded of the huge contribution autistic people and people with a learning disability make to our lives, to our communities and to our society. Now is time for busting myths and truly recognising the contributions and achievements of our friends, relatives and colleagues with lived experience. We all can name someone with a learning disability or who is autistic that truly inspires and amazes us.

Across the NHS and in society, everyone can be a supporter of people with a learning disability and autistic people, to ensure they receive great care and support tailored to their individual needs to enable them to live life to the full. Thank you for playing your role and let’s keep inspiring others to play theirs.

Photograph of Tom Cahill, National Learning Disability and Autism Director for NHS England

In October 2021, Tom took up the position of National Learning Disability and Autism Director with NHS England. Tom works alongside National Mental Health Director Claire Murdoch to lead work on driving up standards of care across the health service and independent sector for people with a learning disability and/or autistic people.

Tom began his career as a mental health nurse and held several senior posts before joining Hertfordshire Partnership Foundation Trust (HPFT) as Chief Executive. At HPFT, he has overseen the development of new models of care, new facilities and the trust’s culture. Under Tom’s leadership, HPFT was rated as ‘outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission in 2019.