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Can I be a doula if I’m physically disabled?

Over the last year or so I’ve received a number of questions via email from doulas with disabilities writing to ask if they can pursue doula work. I am no expert on disability, disability justice, or disability and doula work. But I know that these questions come to me because there are very few people even addressing this intersection, and I’ve done it in modest ways on this blog and in the Radical Doula Guide.

So here are snippets of my answers to two inquiries about disability and doula work. Have additional resources? Leave them in comments below, or email me at radicaldoula@gmail.com.

One question from Ashley:

I stumbled upon your blog recently, as I’ve begun research on becoming a doula myself. I’m trying to touch base with real life doulas to get opinions on my particular situation. I’m incredibly interested in becoming a doula, particularly a Postpartum doula, but there’s a bit of a catch. I have Cerebral Palsy, so I have to use a walker or crutches to walk. However, I have full use of my hands, and live on my own and am able to function daily with minimal to no issues. I just wanted to know where you think I should start my journey to becoming a doula. I also hope that once I become certified I can work with physically disabled mothers, as I can understand and relate to some of their personal struggles. Do you have any suggestions as far as how to start the process? I’ve looked at various online certification programs and the one downside is that they’re pricey. Because of my disability, job options are limited and therefore I don’t have much extra cash coming in.

If you have any advice for me, I’d be incredibly thankful!

My response:

Thank you for your email and for reaching out. I’m glad you’ve begun considering the beautiful work of doulas!

I would say that yes, you could definitely serve as a postpartum doula if you feel like you’d be able to support a new parent in their home with newborn chores like baby changing, cleaning and of course support with breastfeeding and other newborn things. Some of this expertise you’d learn in a postpartum doula training.

As long as you were clear about what you could offer to new parents in that role, I think you’d be fine. I also love the idea of trying to work with other physically disabled mothers–I believe there is a lot of power in serving those within our own community.

In terms of cost I would say this: certification is not always necessary. Is just the training financially accessible to you? That is where I would start, and only explore certification if you feel like it’s necessary for your work. I am not certified as a doula, and have not felt compelled to take that route (you can see more on this here and here). While the training orgs are presenting it more and more as a requirement, there are many doulas out there who are not certified, and I think it’s up to each individual to decide what works for them.

Ashley is looking to connect with folks, so feel free to email her beautifulashes328@gmail.com.

I received another question via email from a doula with cerebral palsy asking about the potential of being a birth doula. I’ll paraphrase her question as I did not get explicit permission to reprint it here. She shared that she has cerebral palsy and is confined to a motorized wheelchair.* She asked about how her disability might impact the amount of physical support she could provide during labor, and how much physical support plays a role in birth doulas work. She also asked about how often birth doulas attend clients at home, as that might be a challenge due to accessibility concerns for wheelchair access in private homes.

My answer:

I think you can definitely be a doula and be wheelchair bound. The amount of physical support required to do doula work depends largely on your style and the client’s desires, but what I would suggest is thinking of teaming up with a co-doula who could provide some of the physical support techniques that might be challenging for you. (Things like the double hip squeeze, or massage). You could even choose to partner with the co-doula only when working with someone who is definitely interested in physical support (some folks may not be interested in touch).

Also, alternatively, if the people you work with have partners, you might be able to guide their partners to do some of the physical support techniques that you cannot. This is something I have done anyway, just as a way to involve the partner more in providing support.

In terms of setting, I actually think most doulas provide support in hospital settings because that is where the vast majority of births take place (98%). I personally have only worked in hospitals. That’s good news for your questions about accessibility. Doulas do often do prenatal visits with clients, but that doesn’t have to be in their home–it could be in a public space, or in your home. Sometimes doulas will go to a person’s home when they are laboring but not ready to go to the hospital yet–but if the client’s home is not accessible to you, you could discuss this in advance, and if necessary, use a co-doula for that support.

Lastly I would say you might consider a really important and unique niche in your work as a doula: supporting other disabled folks who might be pregnant or parenting. I’ve found little out there in terms of resources for pregnant disabled people, and some people might appreciate getting doula support from another person who is disabled. (Not that this is all you could do, but it could be a great fit as part of your work).

Do you have additional advice or resources for disabled doulas, or potential doulas? My research has not turned up much in this arena, although I expect that will change as doulas become more prevalent. Please add them in comments.

I’d hazard to say there is almost no one to whom I would say “no, you shouldn’t be a doula.” We all have limitations, things we can and cannot provide or offer, and there is no perfect template for doula work. It’s about knowing your limitations, being clear in what you can offer folks, and finding additional resources to fill the gaps that you cannot.

*On twitter someone asked about my use of the word “confined” here. I paraphrased from the original email, but used her language in this instance. I know that issues of language and (dis)ability are complicated, and while I will undoubtedly make mistakes, I try to mirror language folks in the community use to describe themselves as much as possible.

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2 Responses to Can I be a doula if I’m physically disabled?

  1. Beth says:

    I’m able-bodied, and I’ve found it very valuable for me to partner with another doula in my labor work. I find labor work to be fairly exhausting (in addition to deeply rewarding) — even just sitting, I’m spending hours of focused attention on my client. While, yes, regular breaks help, I appreciate working with another doula so my client can continue to receive excellent care and I can take care of myself. I wonder if this kind of thing would be helpful for doulas with disabilities?

  2. Miriam, your responses are so eloquently stated. My first thoughts were, “no, a person with these physical limitations can’t…,” but you not only focus on recognizing that they *can* offer support, but on ways to that their perspective/experience would be helpful to a family. This is like my own doula journey – I want to help moms with Diabetes (gestational and preexisting) because I have Type 2 and did not find a lot of supportive people while pregnant or in labor, which led to a labor and postpartum experience I would never want anyone to repeat. Thank you for reminding me that the birth world needs all types of experiences and perspectives.

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