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Authors: John Morgan, Bonnie F. Zimble

Introduction to Special Care in Dentistry:

Disability Rights and the Demand for Dental Treatment

Special Care in Dentistry
John Morgan, DDS
Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, 2008


Study Questions: 

  1. What percentage of the U.S. population is estimated to have a disability?
  2. List three major philosophical changes that occurred concerning how people with disabilities should live and be treated.
  3. What has this all meant for the field of dentistry?

Consider these two facts… 

  • An estimated 15% of the U.S. population has a disability. 

  • A very large segment of our population is in need of comprehensive dental treatment.

Federal legislation in the 1970’s introduced and defined the terms “handicapped” and “developmental disability” (you will read more on this shortly). This legislation impacted dentistry significantly, because it ensured that ...

… persons with disabilities should reside, learn and work in settings that are the least restrictive and most appropriate for their particular needs.

New philosophies were also emerging to replace outdated ways of thinking about how people with disabilities should live and be treated. For example …

  • Persons with disabilities should be living at home rather than in state schools. 

  • They should be going to school and working in their local communities. 

  • State school and hospitals were to begin discharging “patients” with disabilities through a process known as “deinstitutionalization” or “normalization.”

What did this mean for the field of dentistry?

  • The increase in the number of disabled persons living in the community heightened awareness among dentists … 

  •  … and this resulted in a greater number of dentists who realized they could provide treatment for these patients.