UConn Dental Students and Faculty Provide Special Smiles to Special Olympics Athletes

For more than two decades, dental students at the University of Connecticut School of Dentistry have served as volunteers in the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program’s Special Smiles program.

On June 3, the tradition continued when 12 students and five faculty volunteers from the UConn Special Care Dentistry Interest Group hosted a special smile event on Yale's West Campus and screened UConn participants. Thirty-six athletes compete in the Special Olympics Summer Games in New York.

“Although we were seeing more athletes before COVID-19, this is a huge increase from last year. “It's a new venue for us and there's only one sports event (cycling), so we We are delighted with the turnout,” said Dr. Matthew Lepowsky, Clinical Director of Special Smiles at Connecticut College and Adjunct Clinical Instructor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. “We screen 40 per cent of all athletes competing in cycling, most of which we have never seen before.”

“Volunteering with Special Olympics Health athletes is a unique opportunity for students like me to treat patients with special health care needs more easily and with more confidence,” said the rising college student said Barbara Shehata, chair of the fourth-year Dentistry and Special Care Dentistry Interest Group. “This is the perfect environment to connect what I learned in my teaching courses and apply those skills clinically, while also providing a space for athletes to build trust with their dental providers.”

Special Olympics is the world's largest athletic organization, serving more than 4.5 million people with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics is also the world's largest public health organization for people with intellectual disabilities. Many Special Olympics athletes neglect health issues, and the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program provides more than 1.6 million free health exams annually in seven areas of health promotion, including dental.

The Healthy Athletes Program provides free health screenings and education to Special Olympics athletes in a welcoming, fun environment. According to Special Olympics, “Healthy Athletes is not only a program for athletes, but through hands-on experience in training and screening, it is a program for health care students and professionals designed to increase access to care for people with disabilities. Knowledge of people with disabilities and best practices for communicating with them.

As part of the Healthy Athletes program, Special Smiles provides oral health education and dental exams to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who compete in Special Olympics sports. Volunteers perform oral health exams to identify untreated dental disease, create sports mouthguards to protect teeth from injury during sports, and apply preventative fluoride varnish to protect teeth from cavities. Provide oral health education to athletes and provide referrals for follow-up care when needed.

For students, volunteering with the Healthy Athletes Program provides a unique opportunity to work with individuals with special health care needs outside of traditional medical settings. Opportunities to treat individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) are limited in standard education curricula, so participation in the Special Smiles program can increase students' comfort level working with this population.

This experience allows dental students to be better prepared to treat people with I/DD in their future careers, while for athletes, working with dental students in a friendly, low-stress environment develops an appreciation for dentistry. Professional trust and encouraged active participation in maintaining good oral condition.

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