Internships for staff with learning disabilities

Find out how you can support people with learning disabilities into the workplace through supported internships.

13 May 2024

Employment rates for people with a learning disability and/or autism have remained low for many years. NHS Employers supports the development of local and national solutions to remove barriers and increase employment opportunities for people with a learning disability and/or autism in the NHS.

Employing more people with a learning disability and/or autism helps NHS trusts to design services which serve and reflect their diverse patients, people and communities. There are not only benefits to the individuals but also for employers, including the savings associated with reduced employee turnover, accessing a bigger talent pool and nurturing an inclusive and accessible organisation. 

The Department for Education is promoting the importance of supported internships as a route to employment across employment sectors. This includes their key initiative, launched in September 2022, Internship Works, which is a cross-sector programme that has been developed building on the experience of the NHS and its partners through the NHS Learning Disability Employment Programme (LDEP), including DFN Project SEARCH, the British Association for Supported Employment (Base) and The National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi).

Recruiting staff through supported internships

Supported internships tend to be work-based study programme, where young people aged 16 to 24 spend the majority of their time based at an employer. Internships provide an important step into employment, helping young people gather the skills and experience they need to secure a job.

There are a range of supported internship programmes being delivered by NHS organisations and partners across the health system. Some organisations have their own schemes, however, the majority of NHS organisations work with one of the two main national providers, Choices College (formerly Health Education England’s Project Choice) and DFN Project SEARCH. Both offer a wealth of experience of working with NHS organisations and provide an infrastructure which supports NHS organisations and individuals. 

Choice’s College continues to provide tailored educational support and a supported internship course for young adults aged 16-24 with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, and/or autism.

DFN Project SEARCH has supported 270 young adults a year across 36 NHS sites.

  • Intern & Role Details               Tasks Completed                                                Reasonable Adjustments                         

    Intern demographics

    22-year-old female

    Physical disability and learning difficulties

    Role detail

    Role: Café Assistant

    Department: Catering Department

    Duration in role: 24-week placement

    • Wrapping cutlery
    • Clearing and wiping down tables
    • Washing/ drying up cafe items
    • Managing cafe stock
    • Taking deliveries
    • Rotating shelves/food items
    • Taking orders from customers
    • Fortnightly Project Choice meeting to review progress
    • Staff physically showing the Intern each task when learning
    • Meet mentor at the start of each day
    • Having picture aids
    • Using written dates to help with stock rotation

    Intern demographics

    23-year-old female

    Learning difficulties

    Role detail

    Role: Ward Hostess

    Department: Patient facing ward

    Duration in role: 2 years (12-month placement + 12-month volunteer role)

    • Collecting daily menus
    • Taking orders from patients
    • Organising tea and food trolleys 
    • Preparing cutlery and food trays
    • Serving food to patients
    • Cleaning up food preparation stations and patient trays
    (as above)

    Intern demographics

    22-year-old male


    Role detail

    Role: General Porter

    Department: Portering

    Duration: 24-week placement 

    • Transporting patients ward to ward via beds or wheelchairs as well as controlled drugs and medicines to pharmacy
    • Working throughout different departments delivering and replenishing clinical stock
    • Checking oxygen levels on wards and working with staff to ensure they are at the right level
    • Using radio communication to pick up jobs and inform supervisor of completion
    • Fill in paperwork signing out beds on the log sheet to ensure health and safety requirements are met
    • Transfers; using a safe slide to ensure that the patient is moved safely
    • Performing and assisting with mortuary duties
    (as above)

    Intern demographics

    22-year-old male

    Learning disability

    Role detail

    Role: Domestics 

    Department: Domestic Services

    Duration in role: 12-week placement

    • Learning Health and safety/COSHH procedures
    • Following cleaning direction from staff
    • Using the correct cleaning products for different cleaning tasks
    • Responding to cleaning requests on wards
    • Stocking cleaning trolleys
    (as above)

    Intern demographics

    24-year-old male

    Learning difficulties

    Role detail

    Role: Administration

    Department: Bookings and referrals

    Duration in role: 24-week placement + 2 years employment

    • Using computer and all computer programmes
    • Using bespoke NHS data bases
    • Confirming bookings
    • Sending out appointment letters and referrals
    • Contacting patients to confirm appointments
    • Photocopying and scanning
    (as above)
  • Use this NHS Staff Council Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group (EDIG) guidance to create workplaces which support disabled staff.

    Listen to our podcast to hear Paul Deemer (NHS Employers) talk to Pauline Hogarth (North East Ambulance Service) and Sandi Wassmer (the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, enei) about hidden disabilities.

  • The Disability Confident scheme supports employers to make the most of the talents disabled people can bring to your workplace. Disability Confident organisations play a leading role in changing attitudes for the better. The scheme helps employers recruit and retain great people, and:

    • draw from the widest possible pool of talent
    • secure high quality staff who are skilled, loyal and hard working
    • improve employee morale and commitment by demonstrating that you treat all employees fairly.

    It also helps individuals and businesses identify those employers who are committed to equality in the workplace.

    The scheme has three levels designed to support employers on their Disability Confident journey. Visit Disability Confident to learn more about the initiative.

  • Autistic people and people with learning disabilities can have a variety of skills and thrive in a range of different roles but can be at a disadvantage when it comes to attaining and retaining a job. This is often because of a  lack of understanding and support from their organisation and colleagues.

    By gaining an understanding of autism and learning disability, you can open up new possibilities for your organisation and new potential employees.

    There are many reported benefits of employing autistic people and people with a learning disability, for example creating a wider, more diverse recruitment pool; reduced staff turnover; higher staff morale; increased productivity; and encouraging more creative and flexible ways of thinking and problem-solving. Further supporting data can be found in the Mencap Good for Business report.