Smiling Signs for Deaf Australians

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Smiling Signs creators
Smiling Signs creators Anooshree Katwe (left) and Scott Santarossa with their academic supervisor, Dr Omar Kujan.

A student project has grown into a major community health initiative as it seeks to improve oral healthcare access for Deaf Australians. By Lynne Testoni

Dental students are known for their enthusiasm and commitment to oral health, but two University of WA students have taken their passion to even greater heights with the launch of a new initiative.

Final-year dental students, Scott Santarossa and Anooshree Katwe, have created a collection of oral health videos called ‘Smiling Signs Auslan Resource’ as part of their university studies, providing academically sound information on dental care and oral health through videos and written communication, in Auslan and easy English, especially designed for the Deaf community. 

For Santarossa, inspiration for the project came from his connection to the Deaf community.

“Prior to studying dentistry, I studied Auslan full time for a year,” he explains. “Through that I made many friends, and I noticed that a lot of them were struggling with the medical side of things. If they went to a medical appointment or the hospital, there was no guarantee that an interpreter would be available. 

“It’s a massive additional barrier for them. They’re just trying to get their basic healthcare needs met. And I thought the same thing would apply to dental care.”

Santarossa worked with fellow student Anooshree Katwe to research some of the barriers preventing the Deaf from accessing dental care. The second half of the project was developing resources that would address those concerns.

“Our research has suggested that the Deaf community has a common theme of dental avoidance, only going when they’re in pain or when it becomes an emergency situation, because they don’t have the access to the basics of preventative dentistry. 

“That was really what drove me to pursue this topic because dental anxiety is one of the biggest things preventing Deaf community members from seeking dental care in the first place.

“I know Auslan interpreters are in high demand and there’s a shortage of interpreters,” says Santarossa. “And there are different levels of education for interpreters. You might have your favourite general interpreter, but they might not be trained enough to be able to interpret for medical or dental appointments.”

Their academic supervisor at UWA, Dr Omar Kujan, says that the project received two grants, each for different parts of the project. 

“The first grant was from the Australian Dental Research Foundation, with support from the Australian Dental Association, WA branch, to support the research side of the project,” Dr Kujan explains. 

Our research has suggested that the Deaf community has a common theme of dental avoidance, only going when they’re in pain or when it becomes an emergency situation, because they don’t have the access to the basics of preventative dentistry.

Scott Santarossa, co-creator, Smiling Signs Auslan Resource 

“The other side is about community engagement, where we have the videos and the material,” he adds. “And now we’re preparing for a Deaf awareness professional development event, tailored to dentists and dental students. This was funded by the Australian Dental Health Foundation and the Mars Wrigley Foundation, which focus more on community projects.”

Educating dentists, as well as the Deaf community, is a big part of the project, says the team. 

“Smiling Signs isn’t supposed to be something that a dentist can hide behind,” explains Santarossa. “It’s not, ‘Here’s a YouTube video, I’m going to step back’. It should be there for the patient to go home and to have more information. Most Deaf people can understand English pretty well, but there’s some who prefer Auslan to really understand what’s going on. So, Smiling Signs is for when they go home, so they can digest the information.”

Dr Kujan agrees, adding that it can also help patients before they visit a dentist. 

“Providing this sort of information before the visit helps a lot with breaking down the communication barrier between the Deaf patient and their dentist,” he says. “It can help them to understand what they are planning to do and if they have any questions. Then they make their own decision based on the communication they have seen, which we know is accurate. 

“That’s why all the videos have been vetted by several parties to ensure the accuracy, and we have several levels of validation to make sure it’s been checked. Every single element of it is correct and can be used.”

Anooshree Katwe says that the project has taken on a life of its own. 

“We didn’t expect any of this when we first commenced our research,” she says. “We started our research a couple of months before all the other groups because Scott had come up with the idea so early. So, we were quite ahead and had our surveys already running. But once we won that second grant from the Australian Dental Health Foundation, and came up with the idea of Smiling Signs Auslan Resource, that’s when it just took off. And so much has happened since then!”

With Katwe and Santarossa finishing their studies in 2022, they both hope to continue with the project, balancing it with their regular dental work. 

“For me personally, I absolutely love it,” says Santarossa. “And it’s been a nice way to balance the stress of clinical dentistry. I see myself doing a lot more of it in the future.” 

Katwe says her next project is to learn Auslan, which she hopes to do in 2023. “We still have a lot of videos to be released as part of the resource. That’s going to go well into next year. We also hope other students can help expand the research.”  

For info and resources visit teeth.org.au/smiling-signs 

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