Disability Awareness in Dentistry

Ensuring all of dentistry is inclusive for people with varying disabilities is very important to me. So how can you be more inclusive and aware of disabilities in your practice?

What is Disability?

According to the Equality Act 2010, you have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term negative effect on your activities of daily living. 

11.9 million people in the UK have a disability. There are many forms and severity of disabilities, for example:
  • Learning disabilities
  • Physical disabilities
  • People with cancaer
  • People with long term conditions
  • Sensory impairments
  • Severe disfigurement 
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Developmental conditions
  • Specific learning difficulties e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia
  • Mental health conditions
  • Impairment as a result of injuries

Considerations for Disability within Dentistry

1. The Dental Team

It isn't fully understood how many members of the profession consider themselves to have a disability and indeed, there is no legal obligation for employees to disclose their disability to their employers, or even to the GDC, if they do not wish to so long as there are no impacts on health and safety. 

A previous guest post by dental student Shona Sawhney, bravely discusses her experiences when training to become a dentist with a long term condition. I think we should becouraging people to be able to speak their disabilities within dentistry and how they have made adjustments to continue to practice. Surely the empathy learnt from these professionals when managing their conditions or dealing with medical interventions is a great asset as their skills as a dentist. 

The Equality Act 2010 states that someone cannot be discriminated against for any protected characteristics, including dentistry. I am glad to hear of organisations that are able to make reasonable adjustments for those who need it during their careers and I think we should take an example from our colleagues in Medicine who champion their colleagues who have disabilities - for example through their Doctors with Disabilities forum. 

2. Patients

Many patients with disabilities face huge barriers to accessing dentistry, for example:
  • Environmental e.g. access to buildings, stairs, narrow doorways, space
  • Organisational e.g. inflexible policies and procedures
  • Social barriers e.g. stereotyping, stigma, discrimination and prejudice
As well as this, they often have high levels of oral diseases. So what can everyone do to make dentistry more inclusive for your patients where you work?

  1. Communication - Assist those who need additional support, for example access to interpreters when needed (including BSL), using Accessible Information Standards to ask patients in what format they would prefer their information in e.g. written, Easy Read, or seeking information about best to communicate with people with other disabilities e.g. communication boards, Makaton
  2. Environment - Put yourself in your patients' shoes. How can you make the surgery and practice more accessible (within reasonable constraints)? For example, placing rails along stairs, widening doorways, increase signposting, installing ramps. As well as this, look at the atmosphere - it is a calming environment for people with dementia or autism? Do you need to look at harsh lighting, turn off loud music, be aware of the noise from reception with phones ringing for example. Also, is it possible to have disabled parking spaces?
  3. Appointments - How can you make an appointment more accessible for patients with disabilities. For example, being flexible, booking at times which are best for patients, booking longer appointments for people who take longer to process information or get in/out of the dental chair. 
  4. Dental treatment - Are you offering the same options to your patients with disabilities vs those without? Are you unconsciously discriminating against certain groups or show stigma? Being non-judgemental is essential for all our patients, but especially when caring for people who have disabilities who have probably faced discrimination all their lives. Ensure that you also tailor prevention messages so they are realistic for your patients or example, some with dexterity issues may struggle to brush their teeth, let alone floss! So focus on ways to optimise their hygiene which are realistic for example, using modified toothbrush handles or electric toothbrushes. 
To read about how one of the services I work in make reasonable adjustments for our patients during the COVID-19 pandemic here

If you are a Dentinal Tubules member, you will be able to watch a Disability Awareness webinar here

Do you have any questions about caring for people with disabilities? Please leave them in the comments below

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