(Host) When a Vermont state senator was accused last week of improper behavior in a public place, a complicated conversation began about the intersection of politics and disabilities.
VPR’s John Dillon has more:
(Dillon) Senator Ed Flanagan made a near-miraculous recovery from a car accident in 2005 that left him in a coma and trapped in his vehicle for 18 hours.
He returned to the Senate the following spring to the warm welcome of his colleagues.
(Flanagan) "Mr. President, it’s good to be back! You’re looking at somebody who’s grateful to be alive, recovering and with all of you."
(Dillon) But since then, the recovery has been rockier. During the last legislative session, senators began talking quietly among themselves about what they saw as Flanagan’s increasingly unusual behavior.
And last month, reports surfaced that Flanagan was seen on several occasions masturbating in the locker room of an adults-only fitness center at the Burlington YMCA.
Flanagan denies he did anything wrong, although he’s apologized for offending anyone. He said he’s still learning how his injury has changed him.
(Flanagan) "I’m constantly discovering little subtle ways that the traumatic brain injury impacts discretionary decisions I make. And I guess I made a poor one here, and I’ll be very careful not to make such a poor judgment again."
(Dillon) Recovery from traumatic brain injury can be slow and difficult. Personality changes are not uncommon. And one issue is that patients may lose their inhibitions or their sense of personal boundaries.
(Wilmuth) "You see a picture that involves what we call dis-inhibition where people’s behavior is not well controlled and not well-monitored by them."
(Dillon) Doctor Mary Wilmuth is a neuro-psychologist and rehabilitation specialist who works often with brain-injured patients. She emphasized that she was not talking about Flanagan’s condition specifically.
But she said people with brain injuries do sometimes act inappropriately without realizing the consequences.
(Wilmuth) "And people say and do things that normally the usual social constraints would inhibit, but those constraints seem to be lacking. And their ability to monitor their own behavior, and monitor with regard to what is appropriate to say and do and where and with whom is altered."
(Dillon) Doctor Roger Knakal is medical director of rehabilitation services at Fletcher Allen medical center in Burlington.
He also said he could not talk about Flanagan’s case specifically. But in general, he said, the injuries can alter personality depending on the location and severity of the damage.
(Knakal) "Dis-inhibition is absolutely one of the issues that you can see after a head injury, but it’s usually something you see early after injury and not so much a late effect of traumatic brain injury."
(Dillon) Flanagan says he’s fully recovered. But he says injuries like his can change a person’s behavior.
(Flanagan) "Brain injuries could affect discretionary decisions that affect behavior, yes."
(Dillon) "And do you think that’s what happened here?"
(Flanagan) "I don’t know, but it may have been a large factor in the incident."
(Dillon) The reaction among Flanagan’s political colleagues has been muted. None has called on him to resign and some have said his brain injury has affected his behavior.
Flanagan has said he wants to run for lieutenant governor. He says that race is a long ways off, and for now, he’s focused on doing the best job he can as a senator serving Chittenden County.
One question is whether there is a future in politics for someone who has suffered a serious disability.
Ed Paquin is executive director of Vermont Protection and Advocacy, a group that works to advance the rights of people with disabilities and mental health issues.
(Paquin) "We can look back and see a change in attitude over time and see a change in attitudes over time toward people with disability and their ability to function in the workplace and in public life."
(Dillon) Paquin – a former state representative – stressed that he could not talk about Flanagan’s case in particular. But he said a brain injury should not disqualify someone from public office.
Paquin said that for brain-injured people to succeed in public life, they have to manage their disability in a way that their political career can be judged fairly. And that may involve reaching out to others for help. Paquin said they must effectively communicate, do a good job of representing their constituents, and show the public that they can work with other political leaders.
(Paquin) None of those things are determined by any particular disability that an individual has. The question is does the individual understand how to get what accommodation they need around their disabilities so their abilities can be the determining factor for their constituents.
(Dillon) Paquin said constituents also have to accept that the disabilities don’t interfere with the politician’s job performance.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.