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  • Christinne Rudd

Addressing the Disability Dental Dilemma

Justin Dart, Jr. with President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

When I think of oral care issues the quote that always comes to mind is from the movie “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, when Buddy the Elf says, “I love to smile, smiling is my favorite.” Our smiles are very important to us for many reasons. Not only are they one of the first things people see when we meet them, but they contribute to a person’s overall self-esteem and confidence.

A pressing issue for people with disabilities is that after a certain age Medicaid and Medicare don’t always cover the dental services we may need to maintain good oral hygiene. In 2008, adults with Medicaid (21%) were almost twice as likely as adults overall (12%) to not have had a dental visit in more than five years. Our dental health is also connected to our overall health so it’s to our benefit to do what we can to take care of this area of our health.

Being proactive is key. Depending on the work you need, donated dental services may be the answer. The Florida Dental Foundation through its Project: Dentists Care program lists several partners with who donate services across the state.

  • The Dental Lifeline Network assists people with disabilities, the elderly, and the medically fragile. This network became active in Florida in 1997 and is primarily targeted towards people who need dental work because of other serious health problems. Unfortunately, right now these services are only available in South Florida and there are long waiting lists. Much advocacy has been taking place with people who work with the Dental Lifeline Network and the Florida Legislature. The hope is that funding will be allocated to expand the program, allowing for more dentists to be recruited and patients to be served.

  • Mission of Mercy is an annual event where hundreds of dentists see up to 2000 patients in one weekend in one Florida location. Mission of Mercy was held in Fort Myers in 2018 and is scheduled for Orlando in March 2019.

  • Project: Dentists Care provides a directory on its website of local dentists who donate services in some capacity. Scroll through to see what services are available in your area.

Self-advocates and self-advocacy groups may be able to positively influence the dental services dilemma in their communities by adopting dental services access as an advocacy project. Projects can be as creative as you can envision them to be. Some ideas include

  • Making connections with the Dental Lifeline Network to find out how you can help them expand the program to your community. The network is currently making a push in Southwest Florida, asking dentists to volunteer services to just one patient.

  • Becoming informed about other free or low cost dental services already available in your community and helping to spread the word about these services in the disability community. The best place to start is with the Project: Dentists Care county directory linked above but not all community-based dental services may be on the list. Some churches and nonprofit organizations, such as those associated with homeless shelters and food pantries, have free dental clinics. Check and ask around.

  • Encouraging dentists in your community to be involved in some way in donating services to people with disabilities, whether through an existing program in the community, signing up with the Dental Lifeline Network, or helping to start a similar program. Dentists are business owners, most of whom give back to their communities through volunteering or sponsoring fundraising events. Some may welcome the idea of participating in a program to provide services to people with disabilities as part of their community service efforts. One way to get the ball rolling may be to invite a few dentists or someone on their staffs to your group’s monthly meeting. Ask them to help you brainstorm how to address the problem of lack of dental services for adults with disabilities.

The effects of poor oral care have an impact on our overall quality of life and health. While the projects and ideas your group may come up with to address this problem may vary a great deal, there’s no limit to what can happen when self-advocates are dedicated to a cause. Ultimately, the steps we take to foster change make a positive difference in the lives of others and in our local communities. As a result, people will become increasingly aware of how much our voices matter, and see that we can have a hand in the positive change that happens in our lives and the community around us.

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