Pacific Research Looks at the Role of Social Media Supports for Pregnant Women with Disabilities

A new study raises awareness about the need for better prenatal healthcare and supports for women with disabilities. This research, from a Pacific University faculty member and an undergraduate student, looked at social media as a source of social support for pregnant women with disabilities.

We know that social media connects people and that social support is important for the health of a mother and baby during pregnancy. But what about the social support of pregnant mothers with disabilities? A new study titled, Internet networks as a source of social support for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, examines that connection. The research study published in October’s Disability and Health Journal was written by Pacific University Associate Professor of Public Health Jana Peterson-Besse, recent Pacific alumna Jessica Knoll ’18, and Willi Horner-Johnson with Oregon Health and Science University.


Peterson-Besse said she became interested in the topic because previous studies identified unmet needs for social support in pregnant women with disabilities, which can be a contributing factor in adverse outcomes for mother and child. Women with disabilities are more likely to suffer from postpartum depression and deliver low birthweight babies, conditions that women without adequate social support experience more often.

Women 18 years and older were recruited from across the United States for the pilot study. Sixty-three women took part in the online survey distributed via email lists, social media, and word of mouth. Mobility impairments the women experienced include muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and spinal cord injuries.


The objective of the study was to examine how pregnant women with mobility impairments perceived social support. Three sources were considered: pregnant women with similar disabilities who had a personal or “offline” connection, similar women who met online, and healthcare providers. The online survey measured emotional and informational social supports.


The majority of the women, 51%, had a personal and online connection to women with similar disabilities during pregnancy. Said one woman: “The best source of information that I found was other women with the same disability who had been pregnant before me.”

Meanwhile, 24% were not connected to any women with similar disabilities who had been pregnant. These women relied on their own research. “I was my own source. There's not many doctors that are familiar with my disabilities so I had to do my own research,” said another woman.

Results were significantly higher for informational support by women who had an online connection when compared to women who met in-person or women who received information from health care providers. Results were also higher for emotional support received from women online compared to women met offline.

Facebook groups were used by 67% of the women, followed by Instagram, Twitter and various forums specific to disability issues.


Social support during pregnancy results in positive outcomes from reduced prenatal complications and higher birth weight to reduced postpartum depression and improved maternal health-related quality of life.

Promoting online connections may help women with mobility impairments during pregnancy tap into an underutilized source for social support. This could potentially be significant for women with rare disabilities that are isolated from peers with similar experiences due to their location. Although the data were based on a small sample, the findings of the study point to the need for increased online peer supports as part of the prenatal care of women with disabilities.

The Researchers

More women with disabilities are having children but little is known about available social supports for these mothers. “These women are rock stars,” said co-author Jesse Knoll ’18. “They worked hard to find resources and defied society’s norms. They helped us identify a huge gap in resources for women.”

A class on disability and health led Knoll to work as a research assistant with Peterson-Besse. Knoll analyzed data and compiled survey results for the study. That research led her to co-author the article, which Knoll presented at the 2017 Oregon Public Health Association Conference (OPHA). “This research engaged Jess’s critical thinking skills and provided us with a fresh perspective,” Peterson-Besse said. “Her contribution is significant.”

The research study was an exhilarating experience for Knoll. “Presenting at OPHA was intimidating because I was the only undergraduate student to present and I answered questions from clinicians,” Knoll said. “I learned so much and I got to work with Jana, a renowned expert in public health. And now I’m a published author.”

Knoll has big plans for the future. She’s looking ahead to graduate school and plans to become a physician’s assistant and move back to her hometown of Arlee, Mont. With the nearest hospital is 45 minutes away, Knoll wants to help those who live on an Indian reservation, who are suffering from preventable illnesses like diabetes.

Moving forward, Peterson-Besse would like to get more funding and take a deeper dive into the role social media plays on the social support of pregnant women with mobility disabilities. She’d also like to include a larger and more diverse pool of participants. A majority of the women with mobility impairments that took part in this pilot study were white (84%) and educated (62% had a bachelor’s degree or higher).

The public health research study was supported by Pacific University’s PRISM program, which supports student engagement in faculty research.

Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019