Caring for adults with intellectual disabilities: perceived challenges for nurses in accident and emergency units


  • Margaret Sowney MSc RNT RGN RNMH,

  • Owen G. Barr MSc PhD RGN RNMH

Margaret Sowney,
School of Nursing,
University of Ulster,
Magee Campus,
Northland Road,
Londonderry BT48 7JL,


Aim.  This paper reports a study exploring the experiences of nurses in accident and emergency units caring for people with intellectual disabilities.

Background.  People with intellectual disabilities are increasingly in contact with healthcare professionals in accident and emergency units. Often this contact occurs within the accident and emergency service, an area in which staff care for a diverse range of people. The experiences of people with intellectual disabilities within acute general hospitals in the United Kingdom and internationally has largely been reported as quite negative. Conversely, little is known about the experiences of nurses working in acute general hospitals, nor the exact nature of any challenges they encounter, in providing care to people with intellectual disabilities. This lack of understanding weakens opportunities for nurses to reduce barriers to providing an equitable service for people with intellectual disabilities.

Method.  Five focus groups were conducted with 27 accident and emergency nurses from five hospitals in Northern Ireland in the spring of 2004. The data were then coded and recurring themes identified.

Findings.  This paper focuses on two themes: lack of knowledge of the nature of intellectual disability and dependence on carers. Whilst these themes have been acknowledged in the existing literature, they have received limited attention and exploration. The experience of fear and vulnerability was considered by participants to be a consequence of their lack of knowledge. The experience of these emotions is viewed as a key factor in nurses’ over-dependence on patients’ informal carers.

Conclusion.  Increased awareness is needed among professionals in accident and emergency units of the abilities and needs of people with intellectual disabilities.