Published March 9, 2017
The UB School of Dental Medicine last week expanded its quest to bring smiles to Western New York by holding its first Smile Day at the Museum Health Fair, offering dental screenings to children and adults with special needs, an overlooked population in dental care.
The new event, held in partnership with the Museum of Disability History, brought more than 60 people from nearly a dozen schools and community service agencies around Western New York to enjoy dental carnival activities focused on oral health education, receive free screenings and learn about participation in the Special Olympics.
Guests also had the opportunity to sign the “Spread the Word to End the R Word” pledge, a national campaign to encourage people to remove the hateful and derogatory term “retard” from everyday speech, and to promote acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.
Smile Day at the Museum Health Fair, held on March 2, was presented in collaboration with the UB student chapter of the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD), the Golisano Foundation, Special Olympics and the UB Student Wellness Team.
The program marks a renewed focus by UB Dental to increase access to dental care for people with disabilities in Western New York. Following screenings, guests without a primary dentist received help from volunteers with finding a dental home.
UB dental students also gained the opportunity to work with patients with special needs, as well as learn about the history of disabilities through the museum.
“It’s always good to start at the bottom, meaning educate the dental students so that they are aware once they graduate what is out there, who is not able to get access to care, who needs advocating and who needs a voice,” says Sean Challenger, a UB dental student and program coordinator for the AADMD Buffalo student chapter.
Anne Costello, director of the Golisano Foundation, called oral health “the number one health problem for people with intellectual disabilities. We are supportive, through Healthy Communities, of any initiative that offers screenings, clinics and trains the next generation to be comfortable with and open to treating people with intellectual disabilities.”
More than 55 million people in the U.S. — or nearly one in five people — have a disability, and almost one in six children are diagnosed with a developmental disability, according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet, despite the high prevalence of Americans living with disabilities, access to dental care remains a major hurdle for families with children with special needs. One major cause: Oral health care professionals lack the training or experience to treat them.
“Too many times when we think of underserved populations, we think of inner cities and ignore the most underserved population that there is — people with intellectual disabilities,” says Steven Perlman, professor of pediatric dentistry at Boston University and founder of both the AADMD and Special Olympics, Special Smiles, a global oral health screening and education program offered in partnership with the Special Olympics.
With the help of Perlman, who travels to UB each month to help train dental residents and plan outreach programs, UB has increased course offerings designed to train students on how to care for patients with disabilities.
“The future of dental care for this vulnerable population lies in the proper training and exposure for our dental students,” says M. Dian ChinKit-Wells, clinical assistant professor in the School of Dental Medicine and coordinator of Smile Day at the Museum Health Fair.
“What I would like everyone to know is that we graduate students who do not hesitate if their patient says, ‘I have a family member who is disabled. Would you take a look at them too?’”
Smile Day at the Museum Health Fair is only one example of the UB School of Dental Medicine’s commitment to provide access to care for people with intellectual disabilities. The school also coordinates seminars and screenings at The Summit Center and P.S. 84 Health Care Center for Children at Erie County Medical Center.
“One of the barriers to care is the culture of an institution,” Perlman says. “It’s so heartwarming and I’m so proud to be involved in a school of dentistry where the culture is changing.”