Hard to reach

This term is commonly used to describe people who services ‘cannot find’ or find it difficult to engage in their services.

There is some discomfort with this term.

Firstly, what is meant by ‘hard to reach? Often the people described as hard to reach are very easily found. For example, it is often said that people who are involved in a street homeless scene are ‘hard to reach’. Actually, such people are very easy to find – often they are literally on the streets of large cities and in fairly predictable locations. Likewise, people living in very remote rural areas are described as hard to reach but their location is fairly obvious.

The understanding of why people are difficult to engage is also contested. Is this because of some characteristic of this group of people or because of service design? There has been a lot of work describing the characteristics of groups who are hard to reach. Some of this has promoted notions of chaotic lifestyles. In the case of racial and ethnic minorities, explanations sometimes include observation on ‘cultural issues’ that make people hard to reach. It is hard not to conclude that people referred to as ‘hard to reach’ would be better described as ‘difficult to engage’ – and that this reflects on the services rather than on the individual concerned.

The most productive work seems to have been in exploring the possibility that service design precludes engagement of some people. Once this is accepted, working with the people excluded by service design to explore this issue and redesign services and service delivery eliminates the ‘issue’ around identifying, communicating with and engaging people belonging to ‘hard to reach’ groups. This is a social model of exclusion, analogous to the social model of disability, which holds that exclusion is a product of the design of services and spaces rather than an inherent characteristic of people who are excluded.