September 8, 2023

People with disabilities don’t have enough dental care facilities. IU is constructing a new clinic

The School of Dentistry at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is the only dental school in Indiana. - Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI News

The School of Dentistry at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is the only dental school in Indiana.

Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI News

People with disabilities can have a difficult time finding a dentist who can accommodate them if their wheelchair doesn’t fit or cognitive disabilities make it difficult for patients to remain still. The Indiana University Board of Trustees approved the construction of the new Delta Dental Special Care Clinic at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus. The clinic will provide a more accessible dental care for people with disabilities.

Dr. Pamela Linder, the director of hospital dentistry and clinical assistant professor, said only so many dentists in Indiana, and nationwide, feel comfortable providing accommodations to people with disabilities, which leads people to sometimes ignore their oral health until their problems force them to go to the hospital.

“I think that there has been a little bit of a lag historically in dental education for robust training and experience in knowing how to treat and appropriately refer these patients,” Linder said. “All while creating –– if possible –– a dental home [that’s] local to the community, that's easily accessible – not hours away.” 

Some dental offices are ill-equipped to support a range of disabilities. 

People with sensory challenges may struggle to tolerate the noise and activity at a dental office. They need a dental clinic that can minimize sensory stimulation and work with dentists who can spend extra time helping a patient desensitize to different stimuli, which isn’t always accessible.  

Others with disabilities identify as medically complex patients — people who need an organ or bone marrow transplant, or are going to undergo head and neck radiation or chemotherapy, and require special clearance in order to receive medical procedures. 

Since some dentists haven’t received training on how to diagnose people who need clearance for an organ transplant, Linder said, they may not feel comfortable approving people for a necessary medical procedure. This adds to patients’ medical hurdles. 

The rate of Indiana residents with disabilities is 28 percenthigher than the national average of roughly 26 percent, according to a 2022 McMillen Health study.

“As the only school of dentistry in the state of Indiana, I see it critical to our mission that we train providers so that education is no longer a barrier,” said IUPUI’s interim chancellor Carol Anne Murdoch-Kinch

Renovations at the IU School of Dentistry

The School of Dentistry has served people with disabilities for the past few years, but they haven’t always had the appropriate space, bandwidth and specialized equipment to support people with disabilities, Murdoch-Kinch said. 

The third floor of IUPUI’s School of Dentistry, which will house the new clinic, has been decommissioned because it hasn’t been updated in recent years. Now, it will be remodeled as an orthodontics and special care clinic. 

Linder said the new space will have dimmable lights, quiet music, chairs to accommodate bariatric patients, adult changing tables and wheelchair tilts for people in motorized wheelchairs. The rooms may even have two-way mirrors so dental students can learn.  

Previously, Linder has been the sole provider at IU’s Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and Hospital Dentistry who treats people with disabilities, making it difficult to keep the clinic open Monday through Friday. Now, the clinic has added a new dentist, Dr. Christine Downey, who joined Linder to help serve patients with disabilities five days a week, depending on provider and operating room availability. 

The School of Dentistry will also establish a new residency program to provide an additional year of training to graduated dentists who want to develop their skills and serve more patients. 

The clinic renovation is part of a larger construction project within the IUPUI’s School of Dentistry.

Some of the upgrades for the special care clinic are funded through $2 million from Delta Dental Foundation. Murdoch-Kinch said renovations for the larger construction project at the School of Dentistry will cost more than $11 million, with additional funds coming from the School of Dentistry and philanthropic dollars. 

Construction of the Special Care Clinic will begin in mid-2024. Murdoch-Kinch hopes the clinic will be open to patients and dental students in December 2025.

Contact WFYI’s health reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at

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