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

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

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.


Asheville, NC full spectrum doula group looking for new volunteer doulas

Check them out and apply if you are interested.

We are looking for people interested in training as abortion doulas to work with clients in the clinic. Doulas will be present and provide emotional support to clients before, during and after abortions. We are looking for people who can work at least 2 days a month as well as complete the required training, provided by the Open Umbrella Collective in September of 2012. Trained birth doulas are particularly encouraged to apply, though we are excited to bring on reproductive health and justice activists who have no prior doula training.

Details here.

Bay Area Doula Project launches at home medication abortion support

I absolutely love seeing how the different full-spectrum doula groups around the country are developing their models. At this point, the majority are working to support people having abortions by partnering directly with clinics, so that everyone who comes to that clinic for a procedure has the option of doula support.

BADP just announced yesterday that they’ll be beginning to offer medication abortion support directly to people having abortions.

While providing the obvious benefits of privacy, confidentiality, and comfort, medication abortions pose some challenges to patients who may require extra support during their experience. Our doulas are prepared to offer in-home physical, emotional, educational, and spiritual support during the medication abortion experience. BADP has created a comprehensive model for providing in-home support after months of careful planning and training. To do this, we have consulted with medical experts, home-birth professional doula groups, and abortion access communities to ensure that it has responded to various practical concerns: for example, client contracts will be used to address issues of doula and client safety and legality of practice. The BADP has also created internal procedures to provide on-going guidance to volunteer doulas as they provide in-home support to clients.

Medication abortions are done through a series of pills that the person takes at home (sometimes the first dose is taken at the clinic) and then goes home where they will experience cramping and bleeding for a few days. BADP will send their volunteer doulas to support folks at home while they deal with the after-effects of the medication.

It’s possible there are other doulas out there who have already been providing this kind of support, but I’m excited to see a group organize volunteer care in this model. They’ve also created a training so that the doulas are adequately prepared. I can imagine a lot of the techniques we use during pregnancy and labor could be useful for dealing with the possible discomfort caused by the cramping and bleeding.

Pro-choice pregnancy and the politics of language

I was inspired to write my latest column for RH Reality Check because of a number of emails I’ve gotten over the years with various questions about the issue of the language we use to talk about pregnancy and it’s impact on pro-choice politics.

From the column:

As a blogger and a doula, I think about this question of language a lot. What language to use when talking with people I’m supporting during their abortions? What about when supporting someone with a miscarriage? Should I use different language in one scenario over the other? How about when I write about these issues? If we call it a baby at only eight weeks, does that compromise our right to access abortion?

For me the answer is no. The reason that abortion is a decision best left to individuals who are pregnant is because it’s a complicated ethical and personal choice that one can only make for themselves. While there may be a lot of science regarding fetal development, when hearts beat and nervous systems are developed, there is no right answer when it comes to when life begins. It’s a question and a choice that every individual person has to grapple with for themselves. The same is true for the language of pregnancy and birth.

I do my best to mirror the language of the people I’m working with. If they call it a baby, I’ll call it a baby. If they call it a pregnancy, or a fetus, or a itty-bitty bundle of joy, I’ll do the same. Nothing about these language choices denotes anything about what choices should be available to pregnant people—it simply denotes how that individual person sees themselves and their pregnancy.

Read the full piece here.

Five holiday gift ideas for the doula in your life

I’ve never done a gift guide before, but this year it just seems like there are so many great doula-related books and causes to support. So in case you’re building your own holiday gift list, or looking for a fun gift for the doula in your life, here are a few suggestions! I purposely picked gifts that can be purchased directly from individual artists and business owners, rather than all the many doula-related gifts one could find at corporate retailers. Have other suggestions? Leave them in comments!

1. The Radical Doula Guide: A Political Primer for Full Spectrum Pregnancy and Childbirth Support ($12)

Photo of Radical Doula Guides in boxesYou probably saw this one coming! But seriously, the incredible support I’ve received since publishing this guide in August has been humbling. I’m so honored that so many of you have purchased a copy. This is the first time my work at Radical Doula has generated any income, and it makes a huge difference in my ability to keep it running and invest more time in it.

There are currently 0 copies left of the initial 500 I printed this summer. New shipment in! Plenty of copies available. So order yours (or one for a doula friend/family member) today!

If you don’t know, the guide is a great resource for anyone interested in doula work, doing doula work, or just curious about the politics surrounding the experience of pregnancy and birth in the US. It is US centric, but I think the ideas may apply to folks living in other countries (I’ve sent quite a few copies abroad).


2. Hot Pants: Do It Yourself Gynecology, Herbal Remedies ($5)

Picture of Hot PantsPati Garcia (aka Chula Doula) gets the credit for gifting me a copy of this awesome zine. It was created by two herbalist/activists in Montreal in 1999, and Pati has taken on the task of printing and distributing it. It’s a great beginners guide into using herbs to treat gynecological issues–a great resource for anyone, but especially doulas interested in learning about herbs.

The first sentences of Hot Pants says it all I think: “Patriarchy sucks. It’s robbed us of our autonomy and much of our history. We believe it’s integral for women to be aware and in control of our own bodies.”

Go here to purchase a copy from the Shodhini Institute (bonus: supporting another activist/small business operation).

3. A New View of a Woman’s Body: A Fully Illustrated Guide by the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers ($30)

Cover of A New View of a Woman's BodyAnother book that I learned about because of Pati, it covers a incredible amount of medical knowledge, centered around feminist practices of self-exam and self-help. This book gives you the tools you need to take control of your own health care, and provides many illustrations and photos of real women’s bodies. A great resource for your own health needs, as well as when working with doula clients. You can also purchase a copy of this book from the Shodhini Institute.

While you are at it, check out all the other items for sale at the Shodhini Institute online store.

4. Donation to The Doula Project

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If you’d prefer a less consumer-based gift, then may I suggest a donation to the Doula Project? There are of course many fabulous non-profit organizations you could donate to in someone’s honor (including many other full-spectrum doula groups!) but let me provide one reason why supporting the Doula Project could make an impact.

In addition to serving thousands of people in NYC over the last few years, providing free doula support during abortions, miscarriages, birth and adoptions, the Doula Project also supports new full spectrum doula programs that are cropping up around the country. They share their curriculum, travel to facilitate trainings and give lots of advice and support. So by donating to The Doula Project, you not only support their vital NYC-based work, but you help ensure that this movement grows nationally. So consider a donation in someone’s name.

5. Doula Sterling Silver Necklace ($52)

And because I could not resist going to Etsy and searching for “doula,” here is a beautiful necklace for the jewelry loving doula in your life. If you are interested in stones & crystal healing, here is what the artist says about the stones included on the necklace: “Turquoise: Spiritual attunement, cleansing, healing, protection, valor, soothing, peace of mind, guidance through the unknown. Amethyst: Contentment, spirituality, dreams, healing, peace, happiness, love, intuition. Amber: Soothing, calming, cleansing.”

My TEDx Talk: Transforming Empathy

I’m really excited to be able to share the video from my TEDx DePaul University talk from April.

It’s about three lessons I’ve learned from my work as a doula.

This was a such an amazing opportunity, and such an incredible challenge for me. I had to think about how to talk about my work, in this field that is so marginal in many ways, in a way that would reach people everywhere.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about this work without making assumptions about people’s knowledge, and what makes doula work universal. In the end, I talked about empathy and how it connects to our work for social justice.

I hope you’ll take the time to watch it. Thanks to the TEDx DePaul U crew who made this happen, an extremely dedicated group of student volunteers.

NYC, DC and Chicago full spectrum doula program recruitment!

It’s gonna be a busy summer for all you aspiring full spectrum doulas!

Volunteer programs in NYC, DC and Chicago are all accepting applications for summer trainings.

More details after the jump!

Continue reading

Updated doula trainings and volunteer programs pages

These resources are in constant development and improvement! Thanks to everyone who has emailed with new program and training links.

I updated the Doula Trainings page recently, added a few new programs and improved the formatting. This page is just meant as a one stop quick overview of the doula training programs out there, so soon to be doulas can start their research. If you know of trainings I haven’t included, email me! Also if you have experience with one of the programs listed, and want to talk about your experience in a guest post, I’d love that. Email me.

The Volunteer Programs page is meant as a resource for doulas looking for volunteer opportunities. A few people emailed me to say they themselves offer low-fee or volunteer doula services, which is awesome, but this page is meant for volunteer programs that doulas can join in order to provide volunteer doula services.

Thanks to everyone for their help in maintaining these resources!

Aboriginal Doula Training offered in British Columbia

Logo for Aboriginal Doula Training

Via facebook, information about an Aboriginal Doula Training in British Columbia this May.

I’m always on the look out for new doula trainings, and this one also hits a theme I think is so important–training members of marginalized communities to provide doula care to those in their own communities.

Doulas, by the way, are not a modern invention. The term “doula” used in the way we do certainly is, but the practice of trained people supporting folks during labor certainly is not. Perhaps I’m repeating myself, but before birth was the domain of doctors and hospitals, most people gave birth in their communities, with the help of family and trained support people, midwives, healers, etc.

Native and First Nations communities have experienced extreme violence in the form of genocide on behalf of North American governments, colonizers and people. This history shows up in the horrific rates of violence, maternal and fetal mortality, substance abuse, among other things. Raeanne Madison wrote about the importance of doula care in Native communities in this guest post, so I’m glad to see it being promoted (and funded) by Canadian institutions.

There was a 2010 report about the impact of doula care in First Nations communities in BC. There is even a “Aboriginal Doula Advisory Committee.” I am excited by the power of the doula model of care to allow community members to serve one another. You don’t have to be an outsider to be a doula–in fact, being a member of the community likely makes your work as a doula a thousand times better. This sums it up pretty well:

“For First Nations families, doulas have the potential to make positive contributions to situations where women are birthing away from their home communities,” NAHO said. “They can act as communicators and advocates for the birthing family, and can facilitate incorporating traditional practices into the childbirth process, if the family desires this.”

The deadline to apply for the training is February 24. All costs are covered by the program. Details here.

For a list of doula trainings, check out my resource page.

Video: Bianca Laureano on being an abortion doula

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Bianca made this video blog about being an abortion with the NYC based Doula project. She’s awesome, and her experience very much mirrors mine. Also, her earrings rock.