More Public Comment Time for Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities

SMART ALEC has called for a best practice for state and local governments to allow additional public speaking time for seniors and people with certain disabilities, for public comment portions of government meetings for which there is a limited amount of public speaking time per person.

We released the following paper on January 01, 2020:

“The Case for Providing More Public Speaking Time to Seniors and Persons with Disabilities.”

The call for progressive public policy and the call for participatory democracy are one and the same, as we frequently say.  The ability to make public comment is one of the most important aspects of participatory democracy in both the legislative and executive branches, but especially in the legislative branch.

We believe that public comment is sacred, although some elected officials treat the public as if they were a nuisance.

We believe the gold standard for public comment policies is to have no time limit, where possible.  But if there is to be a time limit, special accommodations ought to be made for seniors and persons with certain disabilities, in order to be equitable.

In our report, we examine medical literature regarding the general pattern of cognitive decline in seniors specifically in terms of speed of processing of information by the brain.  We cite a report that shows a one-half standard deviation drop from the average processing time by age 67, and a full standard deviation drop from the average processing time by age eighty.

Accordingly, we recommend a sliding scale of additional public speaking time for seniors, which provides additional time based on age, with some additional time at age 67 and more additional time at age eighty.

Similarly, we recommend that governments adopt proactive policies to provide additional speaking time to individuals with certain disabilities–specifically, disabilities affecting the speed of their speech or of their cognitive processing–as a standard form of reasonable accommodation.

Such an accommodation may very well be necessary under the Americans with Disabilities Act, if a member of the public with a disability were to make a request for reasonable accommodation, especially given the fact that there is no direct monetary cost to governments for allowing more speaking time to a disabled person.  By adopting a proactive policy, governments can remedy one of the perverse aspects of the ADA’s allocation of the burden onto individuals to make a request: which is individuals being too shy or feeling too burdensome to ask for more time.

One of the fundamental concepts at the heart of this policy proposal is that equality is not equity.  Treating people equally is not necessarily equitable.  In this instance, individuals who are not equally situated to make use of limited public speaking time, are not able to make proportionally equal contributions to democratic discourse.

So far we know of no jurisdiction that has adopted this proposed best practice.