Access to Health Care

By Michael Rock

It should be common sense that people with disabilities need access to quality health care like anyone else. Unfortunately, various factors can render it inaccessible to them too often.

Some people with autism may experience difficulty communicating with doctors and other medical staff. Those who can communicate are not infrequently misunderstood or ignored. As a result, they are less likely to have their standard health needs taken care of. This lack of care is one reason why they are particularly vulnerable to such other conditions as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

When it comes to dental care, anxiety stemming from autism and other developmental disabilities can make an office visit an excruciating experience, and some will require general anesthesia to get through procedures, even though many insurance plans will not cover in such situations as root canals.

Despite these challenges, there are efforts to make health care more accessible. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry hosted a conference in Rochester, New York. There, a number of topics particular to the health needs of people with disabilities were discussed, such as colonoscopies for people with intellectual disabilities, and dementia in people with developmental disabilities.

Other efforts, such as establishing specialized dental clinics for people with disabilities, has also become a major solution to this issue. Scottsdale, Arizona’s Pacific Dental Services Foundation’s “Dentists for Special Needs” opened in March 2019. New patients are permitted to arrive an hour before their appointment to adjust to the environment. There is also a toy-filled “sensory room” for younger patients, as well as a specially-designed x-ray machine that does not require them to put anything in their mouth for scans, a room that features a mat instead of a dental chair, and  a room whose chairs feature Velcro restraints to prevent a patient from touching their mouth during an exam as a last resort.

New York University’s School of Dentistry also recently opened up a similar clinic. In addition to nine treatment rooms that are above-average size to accommodate wheelchairs and caregivers, there are an additional two rooms that offer both inhaled and intravenous sedatives for those who need them. An additional multisensory room designed to calm the nerves of patients before their appointment is currently under development.

As more and more knowledge of the unique needs of patients with developmental and intellectual disabilities becomes transparent to the public, there ought to be greater efforts to ensure that they have the same access to medical, dental, and optical care as their peers without disabilities.

Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.