Women with physical disabilities can want, give birth to, and care for children. In fact, the number of women with disabilities who are getting pregnant has been increasing at a rate close to that of women who do not identify as having a disability.
In her extensive research, Lesley Tarasoff has explored in-depth the experiences of and obstacles faced by mothers with with disabilities during the perinatal period (the time during pregnancy and after giving birth). Due to the many obstacles that new mothers with mobility-limiting disabilities experience, it should come as no surprise that a 2009-2011 research study examining the prevalence rates of Postpartum Depression (PPD) in new mothers with and without disabilities found that women with disabilities were more likely to experience Postpartum Depression.
This isn’t a topic that is often talked about. Why do mothers with physical disabilities continue to be ignored and unseen by the many people who could help them? Is there an assumption that able-bodied women are the only ones to have children? When I spoke about this topic at a conference a few years ago, I was surprised to find how little scholarly research was out there and how few articles were available online.
As a perinatal mental health provider, I take a holistic approach to caring for my clients by exploring how the mind, body, and spirit intersect to impact emotional well-being. For women with physical disabilities, this is especially important.
We know that support is a huge factor in preventing and treating postpartum depression and anxiety. Isolation, disconnection, exhaustion, and discrimination are just a few factors that can contribute to symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which affect 1 in 5 women who give birth
Here are just a few obstacles that women with physical disabilities may face during the perinatal period:
- Doctor’s offices that are not equipped to support women with disabilities.
- Lack of accessible delivery rooms.
- Statements from others, such as the assumption that a child is not yours or that women with physical disabilities shouldn’t get pregnant or can’t care for their children.
- Being physically shut out of spaces that could provide support (such as physical therapist offices, psychiatrist and psychotherapist offices, support groups, etc.) because they can only be accessed via stairs (even one stair can be an obstacle) and a lack of disclosure online by providers that their spaces are not accessible.
- Lack of accessible bathrooms in the above spaces.
- Assumptions that only able-bodied women can have a vaginal birth or breastfeed.
- Financial barriers.
Take a moment to ask yourself if you have ever made any of these assumptions or contributed to these obstacles? Or have any of these things ever happened to you?
Being a new mom is hard enough, but adding these additional obstacles has the ability to adversely impact mental wellness.
It doesn’t have to be this way. What if new mothers with disabilities had more options for online or in-home services? The pandemic has increased access to online video and telephone services which is a step in the right direction. What if their providers were transparent about accessibility on their websites or over the phone? What would it look like if every new mother had the support she needed to thrive, regardless of disability?
Whether you’re a provider, a coworker, a loved one or a friend, there are steps you can take to support new mothers with disabilities.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Eliminate judgmental statements. New mothers already feel judged. Don’t add to that.
- Ask what support you can provide. See #1.
- Listen and validate.
- Learn about the discrimination that women with disabilities face, both to increase your empathy and to understand ableism that you might not be aware of, both within yourself and in the community.
No woman should ever have to feel alone or invisible in her journey and entry into motherhood. All mothers are to be celebrated!
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Please note that this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice from a doctor or mental health professional.