Dental care rarely gets attention as a disability rights issue, but numerous people with disabilities suffer from inadequate and inaccessible dental care. According to a 2012 study of more than 4,700 patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities, one-third had cavities and 80 percent had serious gum infections.
Among the culprits are dental practices and hospitals with inadequate equipment and staff uneducated on how to provide inclusive services, according to a Kaiser Health News investigation. For example, people with certain developmental disabilities may not be able to remain still for even the most routine visits, forcing dentists to provide large amounts of anesthesia, which often isn’t covered by health insurance. Other patients may need assistance accommodating their anxiety.
Changes appear to be coming, however. In February 2019, the American Dental Association (ADA), the national governing body for dental education programs, amended its ethics policy to bar dental facilities from turning away people with disabilities. The ADA’s Code of Conduct further specifies that if the facility lacks the resources to accommodate a certain patient, it must refer that person to a facility that can.
Some states are also providing their only remedies. In New Mexico, dentists who have undergone a special training for people with developmental disabilities may charge Medicaid an additional $90 fee when treating Medicaid patients. Meanwhile, New York University recently opened its own Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities.
The Council on Dental Accreditation has also passed a measure requiring all dental students to take a course on treating patients with disabilities. For orthodontics programs, the changes go into effect January 1, 2020. For pre-doctoral dental, dental hygiene, and dental assistant programs, the changes take effect the following July.
“Every dental patient in America deserves the same care, whether or not they have a disability,” Neil Romano, chairman of the National Council on Disability (NCD), said in a news release. “NCD applauds this decision that we view as necessary for people with [intellectual disabilities/ developmental disabilities] to obtain critical access to dental treatment, which is critical to the total health of all people.”
Click here to read the NCD’s 2017 issue brief on dental care, titled “Neglected for Too Long: Dental Care for Patients with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.”