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Treating Patients With Disabilities

Treating Patients With Disabilities

Patient’s come from various backgrounds and display unique and varying oral challenges. Each day we rise up to the challenge presented. We pivot and adjust to provide comprehensive, customized care.

Patients with mental, physical, or sensory issues may challenge our expertise, but they deserve our very best care.   What is the true definition of a disability?  According to the American Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is defined as one “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment”.

According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States live with some kind of disability.This adds up to about 26% of our adult population. Keep in mind these numbers do not reflect children with disabilities. With these statistics, it is safe to assume you are treating patients with disabilities in your practice.

While each disability presents its own challenges, there are fundamental guidelines that will help you treat your patients effectively, and with the utmost respect.


Be prepared

Be Prepared

Do a bit of research prior to the patient visit, to have a better understanding of the most notable physical, sensory, and oral manifestations of that specific disability. The goal is to make the visit as seamless as possible, and to avoid unnecessary missteps. For example, if a patient has sensory issues, you may want to discuss the use of hand pieces prior to treatment to determine if they can or should be avoided.

Clear the hallway of obstacles that may inhibit access to the treatment rooms and restrooms. Have team team members available, in case you need an extra pair of hands in providing treatment.

Allow extra time to provide accurate, comprehensive treatment, and to allow the remainder of your day to stay on schedule. The same thorough assessments and diagnostics should be performed, adapting when necessary, just as you would with any other patient.




Speak directly to, and with the patient, and not the caregiver or accompanying family member. Persons with disabilities report the assumption their disability affects their comprehension, as one of their most frustrating regular encounters. Even if the patient is non-communicative, or if a caregiver is present, it is important to address and interact with the patient specifically.

Speak in a normal tone as you would with any other patient. When interacting with adults, do not speak to them as a child. Be mindful not to raise your voice unless they’ve indicated they are hearing impaired. As all meaningful conversations, get on the same eye level and make eye contact to improve comprehension, and to make patients feel at ease.

Ask questions. Checking on the patient throughout the appointment will help you provide care in the way that best meets their needs.  It will also provide you with a good foundation for future appointments. This will open the door for them to feel comfortable in sharing more about how to improve their experience.

Finally, caring for patients with special considerations will require collaboration between all medical providers and caregivers in order to provide comprehensive optimal treatment.


Don’t assume

Do Not Assume

Don’t assume a patient needs assistance, if they have not stated so. A good rule of thumb is to begin the appointment by stating, “To make you as comfortable as possible, and for us to have the most productive time together, please let me know if I can provide assistance to you in any way. I will follow your lead in directing me on how to help you.“

When you allow the patient some control, the result will be one of mutual respect, and a more gratifying patient experience.



A disability should not be the white elephant in the examination room. These patients want more than having you as their dental provider. They want to feel a sense of belonging. Treat them normally by partnering together with them in their care. In the end, they will feel connected because you took the time to get to know them on a deeper level beyond their disability.


Stephanie Baker Rdh Bs

Her clinical and support team experiences are the inspiration for her writing and the motivation for coaching clients to success. She is a regular contributor to various publications within dentistry and beyond. In addition to feeding the homeless, starting a non-profit, and being involved in her church and other community organizations, she sings professionally and enjoys several creative outlets. She resides in Florida where she enjoys the company of her husband, three children, and four beautiful grandchildren.

Stephanie Baker
Author: Stephanie Baker