Tool Aids Communication with Patients Who Have Learning Disabilities

Dentistry Today


The British Dental Association (BDA) is promoting a free set of downloadable Makaton prompt cards to help break down barriers in communication with patients in support of Learning Disability Awareness Week, June 14 through June 20.

Makaton Library visitors can create a free login and then search for “Your dental appointment.”

Makaton is a unique language program that uses symbols and signs alongside speech to enable people to communicate more effectively, the BDA said, adding that all people with learning disabilities should have the support they need to access dental care. More than 100,000 children and adults use Makaton symbols and signs.

This tool can be used to support communication in day-to-day practice. To highlight these resources, the BDA has collaborated on a short film about the experience of someone with a learning visibility visiting the dentist, available on YouTube.

The film features Charlotte Waite, senior community dentist and chair of the BDA’s England Community Dental Services Committee, and Gary Parker, an actor with a learning disability who is part of the MiXit theater group.

The collaboration has been led by Health Education England and supported by Amanda Glennon, a Makaton tutor and ambassador, and Helen Laverty, MBE, University of Nottingham professional lead for learning disability nursing, and the BDA.

“I was delighted to be asked to support this project. Figures provided by Health Education England indicate that there are over 1.2 million people in England who have a learning disability. It is also important to recognize that many adults, as well as children, will benefit greatly from communications tools like Makaton,” Waite said.

“A number of patients with a learning disability will visit a high-street dentist. By taking some time to learn a few of these Makaton signs, you will be enhancing your communication skills, as well as supporting your patients,” Waite said.

“The Directorate of Multi-Disciplinary Dental Education was delighted to be able to participate in the project,” said Rachel Lish, clinical lead for oral health education at HEE North-East England and North Cumbria.

“It has been an excellent example of a multi-disciplinary approach to bring together all of the expertise to develop resources which will assist our dental colleagues in supporting patients with learning disability. This will help make a visit to the dentist a positive and inclusive experience, and we look forward to educating our workforce using the resources developed,” Lish said.

Glennon is the mother of a 15-year-old daughter, Alice, who has Down syndrome and has experienced difficulties in communicating with health professionals.

“If dentists and their teams learned just a few phrases of Makaton, it could make a huge difference for people like Alice. Communications barriers mean that people with learning disabilities often end up with a negative experience of care,” Glennon said.

“At the dentist, my daughter would feel out of control. There is something that is being discussed around here and she’s not being included, she said. The difference in just being able to say, ‘Hello. My name is.’ Even that is enough to help set that person at ease and make the whole experience a lot more inclusive and positive,” Glennon said.

“During the lockdown, the experiences of the fear people with a learning disability have in visiting the dentist has been highlighted, and we want to help turn that around by making sure dentists are aware of good communication aids, strategies, and, more importantly, Makaton,” said Laverty.

“It’s about disabling barriers and enabling environments so that confusing sentences like ‘hop on the chair’ are not used, and the need for clear, concise, and effective communication is used to make the experience a positive one for everyone,” said Laverty.

Many patients are anxious about visiting the dentist, the BDA said, and research has shown that those with learning disabilities also face extra barriers to dental care, including communications barriers, access problems, anxiety, sensory overload, and the concerns of carers or their families. Some of these anxieties have been thrown into sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic, the BDA added.

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