People with learning disabilities are twice as likely to die from avoidable causes, experts have told a seminar in Derry.

The online event, ‘Health Inequalities: Making reasonable adjustments for people with learning disabilities’, was organised by Derry Strabane District Council, Developing Healthy Communities and the Public Health Agency as part of DSDC Disabilities Awareness Week 2020.

Prof. Owen Barr, Nursing & Intellectual Disability, Ulster UniversityCiting the latest research1, Owen Barr, Prof. of Nursing and Intellectual Disability, Ulster University, Magee highlighted some startling facts:

  • The life expectancy of a male with a learning disability is 22 years less, and a female 27 years less, than in the general population.
  • People with learning disabilities died from an avoidable cause of death twice as often as people in the general population (22% and 44%)
  • A third (34%) of deaths of people with learning disabilities were from treatable medical causes, compared to 8% in the general population – a four-fold increase

Some of the issues that contribute to this health inequality include:

  • Diagnostic overshadowing – assuming that the person’s health issue is due to their learning disability and deciding not to investigate further
  • Lack of accessible communication with the person with a learning disability
  • Not receiving useful and timely information from other services
  • Not listening to or valuing the information that is provided from person with intellectual disabilities, family members or other staff in services.

View presentation

Fortunately, attendees heard, reasonable adjustments can be made to deal with these issues and improve outcomes.

Mary Anne Webb Mencap NI

Mary Anne Webb, Head of Policy and Influencing, Mencap, and her colleagues Rosie Edge and Dave Morton, outlined some initiatives that are being rolled out across Northern Ireland. These include training workshops, the Treat Me Well awareness campaign and the Hospital Passport project.

Every person with a learning disability is entitled to have a Hospital Passport2, which sets out important information about a patient with a learning disability, including personal details, the type of medication they are taking, and any pre-existing health conditions. This means that patient care plans can be adjusted from the outset to take these factors into account.

Dave Morton from Mencap explains:

In addition to supporting medical staff and people with learning disabilities, Mencap is calling for the following measures to be introduced in Northern Ireland:

  • the inclusion of learning disability training in all professional healthcare education
  • mandatory learning disability training for all hospital staff
  • a requirement that healthcare settings should record, implement and audit the provision of reasonable adjustments
  • routine use of reasonable adjustments, such as allowing extra time in appointments, providing written information in easy read formats, and ensuring communication is accessible for all
  • better targeting of cancer screening to improve uptake from people with a learning disability.

View presentation

Clionagh McElhinney, Northern Ireland’s first Acute Liaison Nurse for Learning Disabilities, is employed by the Western Health and Social Care Trust and is based at Altnagelvin Hospital. She described how she works with hospital staff to put it place reasonable adjustments which to support each person with a learning disability through their hospital, with a view to ensure they receive the best possible outcome.  

Here Clionagh explains the importance of Hospital Passports from her perspective:

Talking through her clinical experience and a compelling case study, Clionagh highlighted how simple steps can significantly improve both patient experiences and their health outcomes.

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Speaking after the event, Adele Dunn, Heath Improvement Officer, Public Health Agency said:

“This seminar provided a valuable opportunity for medical professionals, service users and family members, and charities which support people with learning disabilities to share information, highlight best practice and discuss ways in which we can continue, together, to address health inequalities and their effects on people with learning disabilities.”

 Logos of Developing Healthy Communities NI, Derry City & a project supported by the Public Health Agency Strabane District Council and



  • Learning Disabilities Mortality Review (LeDeR) Annual Reports 2018 and 2019, University of Bristol,
  • Mencap Hospital Passport,