Healthy Smiles for All

Ethics research fellow raises awareness of disparities in dental care for people with disabilities

By Yasmine Iqbal

dental tools are held in a giant white tooth
Photo: Gecko Studio

Selected as the 2022-23 John T. McLaughlin, MD, Undergraduate Fellow in Ethics, Anna Monaco ’23 CLAS took this opportunity to meld her career interest in dentistry with her passion for advocating for individuals who have disabilities.

The yearlong fellowship—made possible by a gift from the family of Dr. McLaughlin, a 1937 alumnus of the College of the Liberal Arts and Sciences—enabled Anna to develop a research symposium focused on ways to create a more inclusive dental care model.


1. The Big Idea

Anna began volunteering with children with physical and developmental disabilities in middle school as a classroom and Special Olympics mentor. She learned about the struggles their families were facing to access basic health services, including dental care.

“I came to understand how difficult a dental checkup could be for someone with a disability,” Anna says. Challenges ranged from transferring patients into the dentist’s chair from a wheelchair to soothing their anxieties without resorting to sedation.

As a Biology major at Villanova, Anna continued expanding her knowledge and advocacy— serving as secretary for the Pre-Dental Student Association and volunteering with Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival and Best Buddies Pennsylvania.

2. The Research

After she was awarded the McLaughlin Fellowship, Anna chose her faculty mentor: Kristyn Sessions, PhD, a Catherine of Siena Fellow in the Ethics Program.

“My research interests focus on access and equity, and my role was to help Anna turn her interest and passion into a well-researched, robust contribution,” Dr. Sessions says. “It had never occurred to me how focusing on dental care could provide so many opportunities for an ethics-based discussion.”

Anna’s research involved conducting in-depth interviews with experts in disability studies, families of individuals with disabilities and dental care providers with experience in disability services. She also delved into teachings about inclusivity in the Catholic Church and studied the accommodations required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

3. The Event

Hosted at Villanova in March, the symposium, titled “Ethics in Healthcare: How to Create More Inclusive Dental Care,” was open to the entire campus community and culminated in a discussion panel with experts in disability studies and dental care. “It was great to be able to brainstorm solutions, such as providing headphones for patients, offering pre-visit consultations and providing ‘calm down rooms’ where patients can de-stress after a procedure,” she says. Anna also incorporated the experiences and insights of individuals with disabilities and their families into her presentation.


“At Villanova, we are taught not only how to recognize inequality but also what we can do to change it,” she says. “I am very grateful to be able to create awareness of some of the gaps in dental care and start the discussion about how we can provide high-quality dentistry to all patients.”

Anna’s next step will be to work in a dental office for a year before going to dental school. Her long-term goal is to establish a dental practice dedicated to serving patients with disabilities.


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