New guidelines will expand opportunities for dental care for people with disabilities

By James T. Brett

Good dental health is a critical component of a person’s overall health, yet it remains elusive for many people. Individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities find it particularly challenging to find a dentist who is trained to meet their special needs. As a result, they may forego dental care and be more vulnerable to poor oral health and illness.

That trend may soon change, however, with the recent adoption of new rules and training guidelines for dental schools that could expand access to quality dental care for people with disabilities.

The Council on Dental Accreditation recently approved rules that all US dental schools must include patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their curricula and training programs. The National Council on Disability worked diligently on this issue and played a significant role in advocating for these changes.

Prior to the ruling, there were no requirements for dental students to learn how to work with people with disabilities. As a result, many individuals found it difficult to locate a dentist with this training. Faced with this obstacle, many children and adults with disabilities have lived for years without proper dental care, leading to a higher incidence of cavities, periodontal disease, and other health problems.

A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (published in the Journal of the American Dental Association) found that people with disabilities had worse oral health than the general population. The retrospective analysis involved more than 4,700 case studies. One-third of the study group (32.2 percent) had untreated cavities and 80.3 percent had periodontal disease. More than 18 percent had gingivitis and nearly 11 percent had missing teeth.

Another study found that more than half of dental and medical school deans stated that their graduates are not properly trained to treat people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who are more likely than not never to have had their teeth cleaned, compared with those who do not have disabilities.

Advocates have focused on this issue for many years.

So, the new ruling is positive news for the community of people with disabilities. The requirements should greatly expand the number of specially-trained dentists graduating from dental schools across the country. The changes in curricula and training take effect for orthodontics programs by Jan. 1, 2020, and other programs including pre-doctoral dental, dental hygiene, and dental assistant programs, by July 1, 2020.

With this increasing number of trained professionals, people with disabilities will have a better chance of finding a qualified professional in their community.

In a nation where high quality health-care is widely available and is a hallmark of our quality of life, it can be easy to take what is available for granted. For most people, finding a dentist and receiving top quality care is just a phone call away. It may be hard to imagine that for many of our neighbors, there are obstacles to overcome in their ability to understand and comfortably undergo necessary medical treatment. Removing those obstacles will go a long way in narrowing the access gap to quality care.

The recent action by the Council on Dental Accreditation will certainly make a significant difference in the health and quality of life for people with disabilities. We applaud their work and the resolve of the many advocates who have advanced this issue.

James T. Brett, president and CEO of The New England Council, is a member of the National Council on Disability.