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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Take one step today to stop the state from criminalizing pregnant women

I know we all work on many important issues, but this one is really important, and deserves five minutes of your time and attention.

Bei Bei Shuai.

While the details of her case are super important, the reason this deserves your attention right now is that these cases set a really dangerous precedent of punishing women who fail to guarantee a healthy pregnancy outcome. (h/t to Lynn Paltrow)

Now as birth activists we know how dangerous this is, and how it can (and is) being used against women who try to refuse c-sections and other maternity related care. NO ONE can guarantee a healthy pregnancy outcome. It’s impossible. This is about fighting for autonomy in health care, and to prevent the state from criminalizing pregnant women.

Here is Bei Bei’s story:

In 2010, Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant woman living in Indiana became so depressed that she attempted to end her own life. With help from friends who intervened, however, she survived. Although Ms. Shuai did everything she could, including undergoing cesarean surgery, to ensure that her baby survived, her newborn died shortly after birth.

Ms. Shuai was arrested for the crime of murder (defined to include viable fetuses) and feticide (defined to include ending a human pregnancy at any stage). The sentence for murder can be the death penalty or 45 years-to-life. The sentence for attempted feticide is up to 20 years. Both of these kinds of laws are promoted and supported by “pro-life” organizations.

Bei Bei’s own mental health struggles add another layer of questions of disability rights to this case.

Criminalizing pregnant women does nothing but harm. Bei Bei should not be in prison. No pregnant woman should go to prison because of the outcome of her pregnancy. Ever.

Sign this petition in support of Bei Bei. This is seriously scary shit people.

Via National Advocates for Pregnant Women

In remembrance of Laura Hershey

Photo of Laura outdoors
Photo of Laura via Memorial Site

Laura Hershey, a great poet and disability rights and justice activist passed away this weekend.

I got to know Laura this summer at the Lambda Literary Writer’s Retreat, where she and I were amongst thirty other awesome queer writers spending a week in community together.

I’m sad that Laura and I’s paths did not cross for longer–I wish I could have known her and her work better.

Laura was an accomplished poet, with an impressive list of credits and publications. She was a parent, a partner, an activist. Laura was the one who emailed me about this statement on reproductive rights and disability justice that I posted a few weeks ago. I believe she was also a co-author of the statement.

Laura’s work speaks for itself, and you can introduce yourself to it on her website if you don’t know it all ready. Feministing also did an interview with Laura back in 2007–view it here.

I’m posting a video below of Laura reading a short selection of her poetry at our retreat this summer. Apologies for the lack of transcript.

With love and respect Laura, you will be missed.

Via Forward

How reproductive rights and disability rights go together

This statement was crafted and released by a group of activists this week, in response to recent events, about how reproductive rights and disability rights go together. Thanks to Laura Hershey for reaching out to me about it. I started a very 101 conversation about birthing rights and disability justice with this post, but this statement takes the connections to a much bigger and more political level.

It is a must read.

An excerpt:

As people committed to both disability rights and reproductive rights, we believe that respecting women and families in their reproductive decisions requires simultaneously challenging discriminatory attitudes toward people with disabilities. We refuse to accept the bifurcation of women’s rights from disability rights, or the belief that protecting reproductive rights requires accepting ableist assumptions about the supposed tragedy of disability. On the contrary, we assert that reproductive rights includes attention to disability rights, and that disability rights requires attention to human rights, including reproductive rights.

We offer the following statement in response to two recent events that promote eugenic reproductive decision-making, and that further stigmatize disabled people by presenting disability exclusively in terms of suffering and hardship. Although seemingly disparate events, they share the presumption that disability renders a life not worth living and that people with disabilities are a burden on society. Moreover, they seem to imply that the only appropriate response to disability is elimination, thereby limiting women’s reproductive choices; they suggest that all women must either abort fetuses with disabilities or use IVF to de-select for disability.

Read the full statement here and sign on.

Birth work and disability justice

Disability and disability justice, as it intersects with broader social justice movements and particularly birth work, is something I have been thinking about for a while now, inspired by some amazing disability justice activists that I have come across. (h/t Mia Mingus, for example).

For those of us in the birthwork world (or reproductive justice more broadly) it’s extremely important to keep issues of disability in mind and as part of our practice as doulas. There are many types of disabilities which might impact what kind of birth a person has access to. For example I received an email not too long ago from a person with a mental health issue that required a type of medication.

Because of that mental health issue (and resultant medication) she was finding that she couldn’t go to the local birth center, because simply taking that medication to deal with her mental health issues ruled her out.

One could think of similar issues around access to certain types of birth settings (and even types of birth) for those who have physical disabilities that restrict their movement, or simply just make midwives or birth centers too afraid to provide care for them (because of liability, or ableism, or whatever the reason might be).

We all know that a fundamental problem with birth care today is that only the person with the “healthiest” most “ideal” pregnancy can have access to alternative birth settings and providers.

Continue reading