A selected population of children with disabilities in Melbourne, Australia, was studied with reference to their oral disease and treatment needs. A total of 300 children (aged 9-13 years), 150 attending special developmental schools (SDS) and 150 attending special schools (SS), received an oral examination and the parent/guardian completed a questionnaire. Six levels of function were defined, based on the child's independence for five self-care activities (brushing teeth, feeding self, dressing self, walking and performing toilet). The caries experience of children in the SS was lower than in SDS (d + D: 1.3 +/- 1.6 versus 1.5 +/- 2.4; dmft + DMFT: 2.0 +/- 2.3 versus 2.5 +/- 3.1); those attending SDS had higher unmet preventive and restorative needs. Significant associations were seen between the number of decayed teeth, the dmft + DMFT index, and the level of function (p < 0.005). Periodontal disease was prevalent; significant associations were seen between periodontal status, the need for periodontal therapy, and the level of function (p < 0.005). Assessment of the level of function by staff could assist in triaging individuals for urgent dental examination. Despite 41 per cent of children requiring simple treatment, the preventive and treatment needs of many remained unmet. Following examination, diagnosis and treatment planning by a dentist, much of the preventive, simple treatment and oral health promotion could be performed by trained dental auxiliaries. An epidemiological survey followed by the implementation and evaluation of a long-range public dental health care plan for children and adolescents with disabilities is needed urgently.