Virtual Practice-based Learning within Intellectual Disabilities by Fallon McCarthey, specialist Occupational Therapist and Practice Educator


I am a specialist Occupational Therapist working in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities. During the pandemic, naturally student placements were affected and Universities were keen for AHP’s to reach out and offer placements where possible to continue to provide students with learning opportunities. The Activity Resource Centres (ARC’s) for those with an intellectual disability closed and was only able to offer very limited input including posting out resource packs and some outreach work for those classed as ‘critical need’. As a service we identified an opportunity for OT students to support the day centre staff with more individualised activity packs and online virtual groups.

After discussion with Queen Margaret University (QMU), three students were identified and started an 8 week all virtual placement in January 2021. The students remained in Edinburgh with the use of technology. 


I was initially extremely apprehensive in how the placement would work, however what helped massively was firstly being very prepared. I had a clear outline of week by week objectives/materials I wanted to send out and secondly having three extremely motivated, enthusiastic and confident students. This was exceptionally important for the nature of this placement as the students were required to use their initiative, seek out learning opportunities and making contact with appropriate people. As the placement was all virtual, the students completed a ‘get to know me leaflet’ which was circulated to introduce themselves.

I initially met with the students twice a week then once a week in the second half of the placement, however they had daily emails and they were aware they could reach me at certain times out with structured supervision. Individual supervision was also offered to allow me to get to know each student and tailor their learning and development needs. This also allowed them dedicated time to discuss any issues or concerns. I asked each student to send a lot of reflections to help me understand their learning but to also use as talking points and where their learning needs were.

I asked the students to copy me into all emails they sent to other professionals and day centre staff as a way to keep me updated and assess their interprofessional and communication skills. Learning was mainly assessed through discussions with the students, supervision, emails, feedback from other professionals and work they produced. NHS email was a huge help to allow us to share those more confidential documents, attend MDT meetings and access TEAMS etc.

The students frequently met with the day centre staff to gather information and listen to their ideas/ concerns and struggles. They began to attend and observe virtual groups that the staff were providing as well as allocated a small group of service users to work with. The students were able to provide an evaluation to staff and advise on group work to assist in improving more person centred groups. The students furthermore created and provided some service users with more individualised activity packs to complete within their own home. Information in how these were created was supplied to staff to assist with future work.


That long arm supervision and all virtual is possible and can be done. It allows being creative and ‘thinking out of the box.’ Trust was a big one and relying on the students to talk about their experiences, reflections and manage their own time effectively. What helped was having a weekly timetable that outlined their day to day activities. Time management, organisation and good supervision structures were all paramount.

Although the students adapted quickly, they did highlight missing having access to patient’s notes and office resources. We tried to work around this by activating them with NHS email accounts. Although as AHP’s we value face to face contacts, this type of placement meant service users could continue to have access to AHP’s despite shielding.

As a practice educator in an all virtual placement, I was aware that having access to key workers in the ARC was important who could also offer support and supervision to the students. It furthermore increased their understanding of the AHP roles and contribution. They were extremely grateful to have a fresh perspective on the service and this supports our vision of more integrated working.

Three students was a lot for one practice educator in the sense I had to complete individual reports, however they were able to support each other and not feel isolated which was great. 

Following this placement, I would envisage progressing and continuing to offer more creative placements within the area of Intellectual Disabilities. Opportunities are arising including collaborative placements with social work students and other AHPS within day services.

Fallon McCarthey is a specialist Occupational Therapist working in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities, NHS Dumfries & Galloway.


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