Like a lot of childless women in their 40s, I hear my biological clock ticking and am thinking about starting a family with my husband. Unlike a lot of my fellow mothers-to-be, I'm paraplegic. There will be big challenges for me when I become pregnant, carry a baby and give birth.
As difficult as my situation is, I'm not alone. Experts say there are more than one million women in the U.S. of childbearing age with a physical disability. Beyond that, statistics are sketchy: no one keeps track of how many women with disabilities give birth each year. They have been called "an invisible population."
Certainly no one knows how many paralyzed women are becoming mothers. What seems obvious from doctors in the field is that the number is increasing. And, as I'm discovering, the process of finding out "what to expect when you're expecting" for women like me can be tough.
Yet the idea that pregnancy and childbirth is something I should forget just because I'm in a wheelchair doesn't fly with me. Over the last 20 years, I have gotten used to exceeding expectations. After I became paralyzed in a car accident in 1992, not many people thought I would resume my career as a dancer. But I did. And I've found other work as well -- in non-profits. I hope my involvement inspires others the way their support and experiences inspire me.
Of course many of the impediments during pregnancy will be similar to what the disabled face every day. It's a challenge to get around in a wheelchair. So getting around pregnant and in a wheelchair will be challenging on a whole other level. Any condition that is going to increase the need to go to the bathroom is a problem because trips to the restroom in general are an adventure for someone in a wheelchair. I've read there is a greater possibility of urinary tract infections among disabled pregnant women. Paraplegics can have complications related to not being able to feel contractions. Trips to the doctor's office, labor, delivery and taking care of an infant will all be tougher for me than for an able bodied woman.
But I also have a lot going for me. I already know what lots of people don't: paralyzed women (and me in particular) can conceive and deliver children normally. I have a supportive and loving husband who wants to have a child with me. I have many friends -- some with greater problems than I have -- who will be there for me. I have 20 years of working around my paralysis and playing to my strengths.
There are things I do because of my disability. There are things I do in spite of my disability. And there are things I do that have nothing to do with my disability. Pregnancy is in that last category. Sure, I'm paralyzed. But more than that, I'm a human being who wants what every other person wants. I have a deep desire to be a mother.
I read somewhere that with the many severely hurt Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans re-entering society, the U.S. will for the next few decades have the largest population of severely disabled young people since the end of World War II. In addition, more victims of accidents are surviving injuries that once would have killed them. People live much longer with degenerative diseases like MS and cystic fibrosis. Bottom line, there are more young disabled people than ever who want what life has to offer. We need to get used to it. We are all going to be living side by side reaching for the same American dream.
And if I deliver my baby at some hospital that insists that all new mothers be wheeled out, at least I'll have my own chair. Think I'll get a discount?
Auti Angel lives in Los Angeles, and appears on the Sundance Channel program "Push Girls." She is a dancer, singer, rapper, and actress who is active in a number of non-profit organizations.
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