DECEMBER 3 — Every year on December 3, the world commemorates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), a pivotal date that calls for global action in advocating for the rights and well-being of individuals with disabilities. In line with this, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations emphasise the urgency of protecting these rights to foster societal inclusion.

Recent data paints a concerning picture of the challenges faced by the disabled community in Malaysia. The 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey revealed that one in four Malaysian adults struggle with basic functional abilities, including seeing, hearing, remembering, walking, self-care, and communicating. Moreover, as of January 31st this year, the official PWDs registry counts 637,537 PWDs, about 1.9 per cent of the total Malaysian population. A figure that only scratches the surface of the true number, as many remain unregistered.

A particularly alarming issues highlighted by scientific evidence is the prevalence of oral diseases among PWDs. Studies consistently show a strong link between disabilities and increased risk of oral health problems, such as tooth decay, gum problem, dental injury, and oral malformations. Contributing factors include challenges in daily oral hygiene, limited access to dental care, and additional health condition common among PWDs.

Some PWDs, particularly those with developmental disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy or Down Syndrome, face unique challenges in maintaining good oral health due to physical, sensory, or intellectual impairments. These individuals often require specialised care to maintain their oral health, a need that is frequently unmet due to communication barriers and a lack of disability-friendly dental facilities. Mobility constraints, such as the reliance on wheelchairs, also pose significant obstacles in accessing proper dental care. This situation compounded by the fact that many PWDs are often associated with medical conditions, and some medications they take can cause dry mouth or swelling of the gums, making it more difficult to maintain oral health. Additionally, PWDs with visual impairments, hearing loss, or deafness face significant communication challenges during dental visits.

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Some PWDs face unique challenges in maintaining good oral health due to physical, sensory, or intellectual impairments. — Unsplash pic/Diana Polekhina
Some PWDs face unique challenges in maintaining good oral health due to physical, sensory, or intellectual impairments. — Unsplash pic/Diana Polekhina

To bridge this gap, initiatives like those undertaken by Universiti Malaya are useful to better prepare the dental graduates. The university has incorporated Disability Equality Training and practical clinical experiences with PWDs into its dental curriculum, aiming to equip future dental professionals with the skills necessary to cater to this diverse patient group. However, beyond these initiatives, there is a pressing need for broader societal recognition of the fundamental right of PWDs to experience good oral health. Inclusivity in oral health care is not just a matter of medical ethics; it’s a reflection of our commitment to human rights and equality. Ensuring that PWDs have equal access to quality dental care is a critical step towards a more inclusive society where every individual’s health and dignity are prioritised.

As we mark this significant day, it is imperative that we all join hands in ensuring health for all. This urgent appeal extends beyond health professionals and policymakers, it is a collective responsibility that belongs to every member of society. We urge the public to recognise the unique challenges faced by PWDs and to actively participate in creating a more inclusive world. Whether it’s through advocating for better policies, volunteering at local health drives, or simply spreading awareness, every effort count. Let’s unite in our commitment to ensure that no one is left behind in our pursuit of health and well-being for all.

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Observing the International Day of Persons with Disabilities brings into focus the essential need for equitable access to oral health care. Key steps towards achieving this include raising awareness, promoting inclusivity, and advocating for policy changes, all aimed at creating a world where every person, regardless of (dis)ability, has the opportunity to achieve and maintain good oral health. This day not only reminds us of the challenges faced but also serves as an urgent appeal to make inclusive health care a reality for all.

* Associate Professor Dr Nor Azlida Mohd Nor and Dr Ainol Haniza Kherul Anuwar are from the Department of Community Oral Health and Clinical Prevention, Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.