UW School of Dentistry

UW dental volunteers to boost Special Olympics screening program

Special athletes deserve special care, and the University of Washington School of Dentistry will help make sure that happens at the upcoming Special Olympics Summer Games around and near Seattle.

Faculty, staff and students volunteers from the school will be out in force July 1-6 to support the Special Smiles dental screening program at the landmark 50th-anniversary games.

2 runners on track
More than 4,000 athletes, coaches, and families are expected for the 50th-anniversary Special Olympics in Seattle.

Part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, Special Smiles screenings can include oral hygiene instructions and goodie bags, mouth guard fabrication, fluoride application, and a dental  evaluation. Athletes will be told if they have an urgent or emergency dental need, and the screeners will try to connect them with care. The screenings will also be used to collect information that may help attract funding for treatment and research.

With more than 4,000 athletes, coaches, and families expected for the games, it will be a massive undertaking. It will also help focus attention on the importance of oral health for people with special needs, says Dr. Kimberly Espinoza, who is leading the School of Dentistry’s volunteer effort.

“Oral health is important for everyone, but unfortunately, people with developmental disabilities have difficulty accessing oral health care and have higher rates of untreated dental decay and gum disease,” says Dr. Espinoza, a member of the Department of Oral Medicine faculty and director of the school’s Dental Education in Care of People with Disabilities (DECOD) program.

Dr. Travis Nelson, a faculty colleague in the Department of Pediatric Dentistry who is also helping the volunteer effort, adds: “The lives of children and adults with disabilities are complicated by a wide variety of physical and behavioral conditions. This can make receiving dental care and maintaining good oral health a challenge.”

The Special Smiles program has been a major asset to researchers, Dr. Espinoza says, since it has the largest database on the oral health of people with developmental disabilities. And it clearly shows that dental issues are a widespread problem.

“Special Olympics data show high rates of oral pain among athletes in addition to untreated dental decay,” she says. The Special Smiles screenings have found that a large number of the athletes are unaware of the condition of their oral health:

  • 46 percent have periodontal conditions.
  • 36 percent have untreated tooth decay.
  • 14 percent need urgent care.
  • 12 percent have dental pain.


Improving oral health and access to dental care for people with special needs requires the support of the entire dental community, she adds, but that’s more easily said than done, according to Dr. Nelson.

“Children and adults with disabilities make up a significant portion of our population, yet dental providers are often anxious about providing care to these patients, and caregivers often face difficulty finding providers to care for their child’s oral health,” he says.

Reiterating the prevailing thought among dentists, Dr. Nelson says that all patients should have access to a dental home, which is a steady and continuing source of oral health care. “The Special Smiles program focuses on screening patients for dental disease and facilitating connections with providers who can provide comprehensive dental care,” he says.

“While disability may impact health, it isn’t necessarily synonymous with poor oral health,” he adds. “Special Olympics and the Special Smiles program are a great way to help athletes access oral health services. In turn, this can improve the individual’s overall quality of life.”

The dental volunteer organizing efforts have received a boost from the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD), Dr. Espinoza says. The AADMD’s Special Olympics Coordinator, Stephanie Clark, “has been doing an amazing job of recruiting students to participate in the 2018 USA National Games here in Seattle,” she says. In addition, Dr. Espinoza says, the UW’s AADMD student chapter has been especially active this year, already having completed two other Special Olympics Special Smiles events.