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Sleep Discrimination

In this day of political correctness, one group remains disenfranchised. They do not have an official title. You might call them nocturnes, day sleepers, diurnally challenged, or Nocturnal Americans. Let us call them night people for now. Everybody knows one. Someone, who can stay up until the wee hours of the morning without difficulty, but could not wake up at 7 in the morning if the house was on fire. But no one seems to recognize these people as a unique segment of society. They do not enjoy the recognition or benefits given to groups identified by their gender, race, religion, disability, or sexual preference.

Are night people actually discriminated against? No one will be quick to admit such discrimination, just as no wants to admit that they are guilty of other kinds of discrimination. No one wants to believe that he or she is a bigot. It certainly is not true that night people are as oppressed as some groups have been. They have not been fed to the lions. No one is burning crosses on their front lawns. We do not mean to make light of the extreme injustices that some groups have been forced to endure. Yet, an examination will show that night people are regularly subjected to treatment that would be viewed as improper, if not illegal, if committed against other groups of people.

The most obvious example of night person discrimination is in the workplace. Traditionally, most employment is offered during the 9 to 5 business day. For many, working these hours is difficult, if not impossible. Yet, they are forced to do so. At what cost? They have difficulty getting to work on time. While at work, they are tired. They are more prone to make mistakes. They may be irritable, making it difficult to accept direction, or to work well with fellow employees. They may even fall asleep on the job. So night people are often denied raises, passed over for promotions, or even fired. The perception is that they are that they are lazy, undisciplined, not punctual, or have an attitude problem. However, when members of the majority, day people, are forced to work night shifts, these same behaviors are observed and even expected. Why, they even call it the graveyard shift. What a negative stereotype!

Now some will claim that this is fair. Business has to be done when other businesses are open. If we make arrangements for you to work at night, then we'll have to force management to work nights. The majority of people prefer to work days. Are these legitimate arguments? Why are businesses open from 9 to 5? Isn't that a more or less arbitrary convention established by the day loving majority? The traditional business day is the result of an unspoken collusion. There is absolutely no reason why most businesses could not be open at different hours. There would often be benefits to doing so.

What about the management issue? Why don't supervisors want to work the night shift? Because they are day people! Night people are underrepresented in management. They are overlooked for promotions because their schedules affect their daytime performance. If allowed to work during their prime time and judged on the quality of their work, they would be represented in management in similar proportions as in non-management.

How about the idea that the majority rules? Why should employers have to make special arrangements to provide for the needs of a minority group? Consider what would happen if the same standard was applied to other minority groups, simply to suit the preference of the majority. Suppose a member of an ethnic minority was offered a job only on the condition that they bleach their skin, die their hair blond, and wear blue contact lenses. We would be outraged! What if a woman was required to wear traditional male clothing and cut her hair in a traditionally male hair style to obtain employment? Most would recognize this as discrimination. But most consider it just when, as a condition of employment, a night person is forced to work at a time when their body naturally wants to be asleep.

Some may properly point out that sometimes day people are forced to work night shifts when they would normally be asleep. This is true. It is also true that there are some jobs that would naturally have to be done during the day, and night people might be forced to do them. But, like most night work today, this should be the exception, not the rule.

Let us consider some exceptions that have been made for other minorities. Police and fire departments generally have requirements for height, weight, and physical fitness. But sometimes these standards have been shown to be discriminatory toward women or people of certain races. In these cases, the agencies have been forced to remove these standards, or to set multiple standards. An employee is entitled to time off to attend services on religious grounds. An employer must demonstrate undue hardship before denying such time off. Consider people with disabilities. Under current law, employers must make reasonable adjustments to allow disabled employees to do work that they otherwise could not. Why shouldn't similar standards be applied to night people? Employers should be willing to make reasonable adjustments to allow night people to work when their unique circadian rhythms will allow them to. They should have to demonstrate that doing so would create an undue hardship before denying such an opportunity.

What about discrimination in housing? While it would be unusual for someone to be denied housing for being a night person, night people have been forced from their homes because fellow tenants were disturbed by their nighttime movements. Most night people try to be considerate of their sleeping neighbors, keeping their televisions low, and not practicing their saxophones as 3 AM. But how often do day people offer similar consideration? Day people can play loud music, put up shelves, work on cars, or virtually anything else they want to during the day, without any consideration of whether their neighbors are sleeping. Isn't this a double standard? Isn't a double standard a hallmark of discrimination?

Consider the issue of access. Government offices, restaurants, theatres, and other businesses have spent billions of dollars in order to allow equivalent access to people in wheelchairs. Do night people enjoy equivalent access? With very few exceptions, at 3 o'clock in the morning, it is impossible to file for unemployment, order a pizza, watch a first run movie, open a checking account, or get your oil changed. Why doesn't anyone see the inherent unfairness involved?

In many places, municipal governments have made it illegal for businesses to be open 24 hours in various zones, sometimes entire communities! This is tantamount to zoning parts of a community so that only members of certain races may live there. This would clearly be illegal. Why doesn't anyone champion the cause of the downtrodden night person?

What can be done about such discrimination? It may be necessary for court cases to be filed when discrimination is practiced, as has been the case with other minorities. Maybe the solution is to have insomnia classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perhaps night people will organize like other groups have. Maybe we will see the National Association for the Advancement of Night People, or the League of Nocturnal Voters. Like discrimination of the past, night discrimination will likely take some time to overcome, and will likely always be present to some extent. The first step is to recognize that there is a problem. There is such a thing as the night person. Whether they are different from day people because of a biological reason, their upbringing, or their environment is a question that will be discussed in a future issue. But the fact is that most don't choose to be night people any more than others choose to be day people. It is as much a part of who they are as being tall, brunette, or left-handed. The stereotype that they are lazy, undisciplined, antisocial, or otherwise inferior needs to be rejected. Discrimination against night people is wrong and it should stop.

What do you think?

Do you think that discrimination against night people is wrong? Is it a big problem? How has it affected you personally? Does it even exist? Do you think night people are lazy or undisciplined? We want to know what you're thinking. Please send us your thoughts by e-mail, or to the address below. Your responses may be posted in a future issue.