U of A students promote dentistry care for people with disabilities

Edmonton dentistry students are trying to break down barriers between disabled people and dental care.

The University of Alberta's School of Dentistry is hosting its first annual Sharing Smiles Day Event this Saturday.

The student-led workshop is part of the Oral Health Total Health initiative in Alberta, which aims to advocate for and improve oral health care for people with special needs.

'Difficult to bring these patients in'

"People with developmental disabilities or physical disabilities are actually one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to dental care and dental needs," said Navi Bharj, co-chair of the campaign.

"They're at a higher risk of cavities, a higher risk for periodontic disease. And with the anxiety that a dental office does bring, it's difficult to bring these patients in."

Beyond the anxiety of attending a clinic, special needs patients can also face stigma at the dentist's office, said Bharj.

A lack of training can make some practitioners reluctant to treat people with disabilities. Breaking down those barriers is an important part of training the next generation of new dentists.

"To see them in person, to hear the caregivers explain what this population needs … to get comfortable [with them] on that basis makes us better professionals in the future," Bharj said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"To not have that anxiety, not only from the patient's perspective but also from the practitioners."

'Build some trust'

The event starts off with an expo morning of various games led by students, followed by workshops and one-on-one consultations with dental hygienists and dentistry students.

More than 200 students, patients and caregivers are expected to attend the free event, which will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Katz Building at 114th Street and 87th Avenue. More information is available online.

Organizers hope the forum fosters understanding within the profession, while regaining the trust of patients who may have been turned away or treated poorly by practitioners in the past.

"These individuals, they have a hard time accessing dental care," said Bryan Lim, co-chair of the Oral Health Total Health initiative in Alberta.

"These two groups are just not that comfortable with each other so we're trying to get these two groups together to build some relationships and build some trust."