Volunteers Take a Dental Health Day for the Disability Community

John D. Kemp, Esq


As I entered the Viscardi Center’s brightly decorated gymnasium on the morning of Friday, October 26, the excitement was palpable. Amidst the music and upbeat hustle and bustle of the early morning setup for Project Accessible Oral Health’s first Take a Dental Health Day: Screening & Education for the Disability Community event hosted by the Henry Viscardi School, what immediately caught my eye was the 75 dentists, dental students, dental residents, and volunteers in matching and vibrant blue and white Take a Dental Health Day t-shirts. They looked like an all-star team, ready to tackle the number one unmet health need for our nation’s 57 million-strong disability community: equal access to culturally competent oral healthcare, as compared to non-disabled people. 

We kicked off the event at 9:30 am with an introduction by Project Accessible Oral Health’s executive director, Barbie Vartanian, who expressed how thrilled she was to be involved in an event that provided people with disabilities—like her school-age son Sammy, who has autism—an appropriate, high-quality dental experience and customized education.

Dr. David Miller, chairman of the Department of Dental Medicine at Interfaith Medical Center, a member of the Project’s Board of Advisors, and a 30-year veteran of treating the special needs community, explained how happy he was to be part of a movement to raise awareness of this oral healthcare crisis and an event that not only helps the dental student, resident, or professional demystify working with patients that present differently, but also work to find a culturally competent dental home for those in need.

Then the patients came! Kindergarteners, teens, and young adults filled the gym with a constant buzz of conversation and laughter, moving from the free dental screening and fluoride varnish treatment areas staffed by our high-energy, friendly, patient, and kind volunteers to the education room for entertaining videos and interactive demonstrations. 

Then, they were on to picking up their “swag” bags filled with fun dental products and information and stopping for group photos and selfies at our branded photo wall. During the event, volunteer students were capturing data for analysis, and dental professionals were identifying caries and uncovering significant dental issues that, without the screening, would have gone undetected and could now be brought to the attention of the patients’ caregivers. 

As the last patient and guest exited at 4:30 pm, I was so moved by what transpired and how many lives we touched. In a single day, our professionals and volunteers were able to provide screenings to more than 75 and valuable education to more than 200 individuals. In addition, our local and regional legislators voluntarily came by to learn more about why the lack of equal access to oral healthcare is such a critical issue to the disability community. Further, we are working with our partners to create the first directory of culturally competent dental homes for people with disabilities. And, we’re excited by the interest shown by other stakeholders to expand screening events like this both regionally and nationally!

Take a Dental Health Day put a face to the crisis and allowed us the opportunity to raise awareness of the three key factors that stand in the way of our equal oral and overall health.

First, there is the physical access to the actual neighborhood dental facility, from the parking lot all the way into the building and the treatment area. Then there is general access to dental professionals who are comfortable and trained to treat those of us with a wide variety of visible and nonvisible disabilities who also may be medically fragile and use wheelchairs and assistive communication devices.

Cost is another factor, particularly since the disability community as a whole is underemployed, underinsured, and typically living at or below the poverty level. Policy changes are critically needed to provide better insurance coverage, and reform is needed to properly reimburse dentists for the care and services they’re providing to us. Advocacy efforts by Project Accessible Oral Health is a priority, as one size does not fit all in this situation.

Finally, we must raise awareness and educate. We need to understand the correlation between good oral health and good overall health. The whole medical profession does, too. Think about it. Has your primary doctor or pediatrician asked if you’ve seen a dentist recently, or recommended you did? We also need to learn and practice good oral hygiene. In addition, initiatives must be put in place to educate the next-gen dentists while they are in dental school, as well as practicing dentists, about how to treat us. It’s all about supply and demand. The current pool of dental professionals cannot meet the needs of our growing disability population. 

Project Accessible Oral Health is proud of what was accomplished at its first Take A Dental Health Day. As the first national nonprofit to assemble and connect a consortium of stakeholders from across all sectors in pursuit of equal access to quality oral healthcare, we want to lead the way to a better understanding by community dentists, medical professionals, and people with disabilities of the importance of equal oral healthcare and reinforce the importance of dental health to overall health.

You can learn more by watching our Take a Dental Health Day video. Come join the movement!

Mr. Kemp is president and CEO of the Viscardi Center. He graduated from Washburn University School of Law in 1974 and has received two honorary degrees. In 1995, he cofounded the American Association of People with Disabilities with Paul G. Hearne. In March 2006, he received the Henry B. Betts Award, America’s highest honor for disability leadership and service. In December 2014, he received the Dole Leadership Prize, which previously has been awarded to Nelson Mandela and two former US Presidents. He also chairs Viscardi’s Project Accessible Oral Health, a global public-private partnership in pursuit of improved overall health and access for the disability community. He can be reached at jkemp@viscardicenter.org.

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