Consent and Daily Living – Guest Column by Kavya Mukhija
Kavya Mukhija is a Fellow of the I Can Lead, a programme started by non-profit Rising Flame for young women with disabilities in India. This piece was written for lightening talk given at a Rising Flame event Lead. Grow. Change.
Day in and day out we hear this bi-syllable word, 'consent'. But what does it actually mean? How do we lay the foundations of consent in daily living? Is consent in daily living really consent or does it fade away as the clock ticks by? Let's find out.
We've heard the word a number of times and its meaning loosely translates to giving approval or granting permission. You know, the consent to walk in, or to help clean the sink. Specifically, it means to voluntarily give approval or to give in to a proposal. Focus word: voluntarily. If it's not voluntary, it's not consent.
In everyday life, this consent gets blurred into the oblivion. We get so used to going on with the routine that consent hardly holds relevance in the way things are done. It feels trivial because it is what is done on a regular basis. So, it begins to lose its meaning, which is why it is important to establish some guidelines beforehand. I, however go with the flow. When I feel that someone is infringing on my personal space without my consent, I stop them right there.
Consent for a person with a disability is, however, complicated. My daily routine requires a lot of physical touching - while bathing, wearing clothes, lying in bed, etc. It is something that all of us present here won't allow without proper consent. They are my parents and I know that without them helping me out, I won't be able to bathe or do the other things by myself. So, we have these unspoken norms in mind. Consent also extends beyond my physical body. It applies to the aids I use - my wheelchair. I remember people manhandling my wheelchair, fidgeting with it or rolling it without my permission. I felt frustrated. When I would tell them to stop doing what they were doing, they'd tell me that they weren't actually disturbing 'me'.
Home vs Outside World
Consent becomes more or less apparent when you're disabled. Given the stigma enveloping persons with disabilities, seeking our consent is not something that is kept in mind. It is an all or none phenomena, either I need help all the time or I don't need help at all; either I can walk, or I cannot walk at all. But it doesn't work like that - there are things that I can do on my own like eating or cracking bad jokes! I have had experiences where people assumed that I needed help even without my mentioning it explicitly. My memory is filled with instances when relatives and strangers would pinch my cheeks without my permission, assuming that I liked it because I was cute.
At home, things are different. When I struggle to roll my wheelchair near the table or find it difficult to grab something that is kept far away, my sister gets it for me only when I ask her to, which means that she respects my individuality and the norms we have agreed upon. My needs and wants are given importance and I'm not forced to do something that I don't want to do, like ditching bath on a not so good day. If there's something that I should do, my parents help me understand why I should give it a shot. During my board exams, I would panic every day before the exam and eventually ask my father to allow me to skip the exam. My father would then tell me that it was just an exam and that they were there with me to pull me back up if I didn't come out with flying colours. So the element of force and compulsion was replaced by acceptance and understanding. Focus word- Mutual agreement.
For me, consent blooms from an understanding of another person as an individual irrespective of any other parameters. Consent doesn't mean assumption, so it is always a good idea to ask before stepping in a person's personal space. Consent comes from viewing and treating another person as you'd like to be treated yourself!