People who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, scooters, or crutches, are likely used to the scrutiny of the general public: stares that range from curious to intrusive, and questions that run the spectrum of polite to rude.
Doctor Lisa Iezzoni and her colleagues published a study titled “Public Responses to Women With Mobility Disability Duirng Pregnancy” where 22 women with mobility disabilities who had given birth within the prior 9 years were interviewed about their experiences with public responses to either their pregnancy or to them caring for a newborn.
Of the 22 participants, 18 reported having interactions with strangers whose questions fell into one or more of the following categories (as characterized by the study): curious; intrusively and persistently curious; hostile; questioning competence of woman as a potential parent; oblivious, not recognizing visible pregnancy or motherhood; and positive. While some participants say they answered strangers’ inquiries in a straightforward manner, others reported responding with answers ranging from humorous to sarcastic.
Below are examples of interactions from each of the six categories.
Many women recall being asked nearly identical questions. One participant with cerebral palsy recounted:
“Random people would just come up and say, ‘Oh, you can have sex?’ ‘How in the world did you get pregnant?’ ‘Was it artificial insemination?’’’
Several women said they replied simply, ‘‘I had sex.’’”
One woman with a spinal cord injury recalls hearing from able-bodied friends of hers about their interactions with strangers during their pregnancies – how people would come up to them and touch their stomachs and “talk about everything.” The participant shares:
“No one ever said a thing except, ‘Were you raped?’'and ‘'How did that happen?’'and ‘Are you really pregnant or is that just a part of your disability?’ A lot of very different questions were asked of me than of my friends.”
Several participants recall hostile interactions where the public either directly or indirectly suggested their children would be a burden on society. A woman who has arthrogryposis and walks with leg braces was met with the following comments from a stranger:
“‘What do you think you’re doing? How you can do this?’ …‘You’re just a waste to society. Why would you bring a baby into that?'”
Another woman with arthrogryposis who uses a power wheelchair recalls the following comment by a woman standing behind her while in line at the grocery store: “‘Oh good. Another child I’m going to have to pay for.'”
One participant shares the following interaction with a stranger at the mall: “I had one old lady walk by me, and she just had this look of disgust on her face like, ‘Someone would have sex with you?’ […] Curiosity and disability go hand in hand with rudeness a lot of times. Somebody was just shocked that I would consider having a baby because how could I possibly take care of a child?”
“Sometimes strangers seemed oblivious to the possibility that a woman with physical disability could be pregnant or mother of an infant,” reports Dr. Iezzoni. A participant who has osteogenesis imperfecta and uses a manual wheelchair recalls a conversation with a neighbor: “A neighbor came over and said, ‘Is that your baby?’ And we said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, where does she live?’ And we said, ‘Here, with us.’ He said, ‘She’s in there with you guys?'"
The positive comments reported by participants were notably categorized this way due to the women’s unmet expectation of a negative comment. “These women interpreted the absence of the negative as indicating something positive,” writes Dr. Iezzoni. These comments included things like, "'Oh my gosh, are you pregnant?’ ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so cute.' which were then followed with standard curious comments such as 'How did that happen?'"
Clearly, the general public still has a long way to go in their attitudes about pregnancy and disability. Dr. Iezzoni writes, “The possibility that women with mobility disability might be sexually active and desire pregnancy challenges longstanding societal assumptions.”
The study concludes with the following comments:
“Women with mobility disability who are visibly pregnant may perceive reactions from strangers that appear intrusive. Planning ahead for handling such encounters could reduce the stresses of these interactions.”
The entire study appeared in the Disability and Health Journal, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2015. Thank you to Dr. Iezzoni and her colleagues for sharing this information with AbleThrive.
What has been your experience with comments from strangers during pregnancy or while caring for a newborn? Tell us your thoughts, and you could be featured on AbleThrive!