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In the new year do services need to give the problematic phrase ‘Hard to Reach’ a new lease of life?

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

There are always new buzz words and phrases flying around the third sector, policy and healthcare. Hard to reach feels like it’s been around longer than most. It’s had incredible staying power. Other variations are; marginalised, disenfranchised, excluded, voiceless, I don’t like any of them. They feel ‘othering*’. I have never heard a client describe themselves as ‘marginalised’. However, Hard to reach has always been my least favourite. Ask Wile E. Coyote to describe Road Runner and he would have a case to describe Road Runner as hard to reach. That’s Road Runner’s whole vibe, Road Runner's survival depends on not being reached. However, when it comes to our clients, their survival might depend on us reaching them.

Hard to reach is used to describe people who may not access services through conventional means or may need extra support or consideration when it comes to engagement. I have been in the room when it has been used to describe; young people, single mothers, people with substance addictions, refugees, and people with spinal injuries, and this is a dramatically reduced list. Many of these conversations have felt uncomfortable to me. First, there is seldom a representative from the hard to reach community involved. Second, these conversations were always add-ons, just before any other business (AOB). Thirdly, the focus of the conversation always put the spotlight on the hard to reach community, highlighting why ‘they were the problem that needed fixing’.

Thankfully, because of all these reasons, and more, the phrase is losing popularity. Despite this, I’d like to bring it back. I am a millennial after all - we love a throwback! But instead of its original use, let’s apply it to where the responsibility of accessing our services really lies, on us! As counsellors, service managers, policy makers, commissioners, let’s ask ourselves, are our services hard to reach? And let’s not stop there, let’s ask that question to the people we want to reach our services.

In my experience, people are remarkably easy to reach, when you involve them in the decision making over their own care and wellbeing. By regularly asking ourselves and our clients, ‘am I hard to reach?’ we are committing to working with our clients to support them in a way that is impactful to them. Despite a vaccine, the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to highlight societies inequalities for a long time into the future. Because of this, asking ourselves this question will become increasingly important if we want to keep our doors open to all and our work meaningful.

*Othering - refers to the process whereby an individual or groups of people attribute negative characteristics to other individuals or groups of people that set them apart as representing that which is opposite to them.

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