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​New communication resource for dental teams: Learning Disability Awareness

The British Dental Association (BDA) is supporting Learning Disability Awareness Week (14-20 June). We are encouraging all dentists and dental team members to download a new free set of Makaton prompt cards to help break down barriers to communications for dental patients.

To access the resource, visit the Makaton Library – create a free login and search for ‘Your dental appointment’.

Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs, alongside speech to enable people to communicate more effectively. All people with a learning disability should have the support they need to access dental care and this tool can be used to support communication in day- to-day practise.

To highlight these new resources, the BDA has collaborated on a short film highlighting the experience of someone with a learning disability visiting the dentist, available via YouTube.

Your Dental Appointment - A Positive Choice

The film features Charlotte Waite, Senior Community Dentist and Chair of the BDA’s England Community Dental Services Committee, and Gary Parker, an actor with a learning disability who is part of the MiXit theatre group.

This collaboration has been led by Health Education England, and supported by Amanda Glennon, a Makaton tutor and ambassador, and Helen Laverty MBE, University of Nottingham professional lead for learning disability nursing, and the BDA.

Charlotte Waite, Senior Community Dentist and Chair of the BDA’s ECDSC said:

“I was delighted to be asked to support this project. Figures provided by Health Education England indicate that there are over 1.2 million people in England who have a learning disability. It is also important to recognise that many adults, as well as children, will benefit greatly from communications tools like Makaton. A number of patients with a learning disability will visit a high-street dentist. By taking some time to learn a few of these Makaton signs you will be enhancing your communication skills, as well as supporting your patients.”

Rachel Lish, Clinical lead for Oral Health Education, HEE North-East England and North Cumbria said:

“The Directorate of Multi-Disciplinary Dental Education was delighted to be able to participate in the project. It has been an excellent example of a multi-disciplinary approach bring together all of the expertise to develop resources which will assist our dental colleagues in supporting patients with learning disability. This will help make a visit to the dentist a positive and inclusive experience and we look forward to educating our workforce using the resources developed.”

Amanda Glennon, whose 15-year-old daughter, Alice, has Down’s syndrome and has experienced difficulties in communicating with health professionals says:

“If dentists and their teams learned just a few phrases of Makaton, it could make a huge difference for people like Alice. Communications barriers mean that people with learning disabilities often end up with a negative experience of care. At the dentist, my daughter would feel out of control. ‘There is something that is being discussed around her and she’s not being included,’ she said. The difference in just being able to say, “Hello, my name is”. Even that is enough to help set that person at ease and make the whole experience a lot more inclusive and positive.”

Helen Laverty MBE, University of Nottingham professional lead for learning disability nursing, said:

“During the lockdown the experiences of the fear people with a learning disability have in visiting the dentist has been highlighted, and we want to help turn that around by making sure dentists are aware of good communication aids, strategies and more importantly, Makaton. It’s about disabling barriers and enabling environments so that confusing sentences like ‘hop on the chair’ are not used and the need for clear concise and effective communication is used to make the experience a positive one for everyone. After all #togetherwearebetter! #TeamSmile.”

What can dentists do to help?

Many patients are anxious about visiting the dentist, and research has shown that those with learning disabilities also face extra barriers to dental care, including communications barriers, access problems, anxiety, sensory overload and the concerns of carers or their families, and some of these have been thrown into sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read Charlotte Waite’s blog on Breaking down barriers to access.

Find out more about the BDA’s work on patients with learning disabilities.