When Your Doula Doesn’t Speak Your Language

As doulas, we sometimes take for granted how easy communication can be. The majority of our clients are Canadian, or newcomers who speak a little English. Sometimes there is a language barrier, but we usually all know enough to communicate with each other. What I learned is that sometimes verbal communication is not enough, and my challenge was to find a common understanding when we could not use words.

I had the pleasure of supporting a lovely couple who are deaf. My ASL skills are meagre, at best; I know the alphabet, and can ask, “How are you?” That might be enough to greet someone on the street, but in the hospital, when having to explain procedures or ask intimate questions, my vocabulary falls short.

For this particular birth, I worked alongside an ASL interpreter. What amazing work these people do: providing a voice for the hearing impaired community is such a valuable resource. During my client’s labour, it became a tight-linked chain of communication: the nurses patiently explaining procedures, and what they were about to do; the interpreter then signing to mom; mom being able to ask follow up questions. There was an open dialogue, even if that dialogue looked a little different than I am used to.

At first, I felt awkward and I wasn’t sure where I fit in. The nurses were amazing with taking their time to explain everything, and being patient while the interpreter relayed the message. My role became more emotional support: to validate the choices my client was making, to encourage her to ask more questions, and explain what was going on when the nurses had to focus their attention on baby instead of mom. I was an extra body to help with position changes, and I could focus on discussing her plans for when baby came home.

The room was very quiet most of the time. For those of us who are able, you realize how little you must speak to communicate effectively. There was a lot of reading body language and use of gestures. We didn’t have the usual chanting to “Push! Push! Push!” It was more silent countdowns to the next contraction, silent countdowns to push, looks of encouragement, and smiles of reassurance.

There is a lot of stigma around what able-bodied people think about disability. There is a common perception that they are less intelligent or don’t understand what is going on. There is even an insidious opinion that anyone “disabled” should not be having children at all; that they are deficient in some way. Thankfully, none of those opinions were in that labour and delivery room. It was nothing but dedication to the couple to ensure they were included and respected.

What this experience taught me, is that it truly takes a village to help bring a child into the world. Doulas work alongside doctors, midwives, and nurses every day, so we are familiar with the idea of a birth team; but sometimes it requires extra skills, and an extra effort, to make a woman in labour feel safe, informed, and heard.

We forget that everyone has a different perspective on the world, and how they experience it is not the same as how we do. No one is “less able” than anyone else; it’s society that creates barriers. I was so thankful to see the hospital remove those barriers for this couple to be actively engaged in their own healthcare, to be able to ask questions, and to be treated as individuals. It was amazing, and humbling; there is still so much to learn about how to make informed childbirth accessible to everyone, but this was a great example of how healthcare is making moves toward that goal.



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