Tuesday, 03 June 2008

'Hard to reach'? Increasingly I seem to be hearing people blurting righteous objection to the phrase 'hard to reach.' Perhaps it's time to look at this a little more closely. The misuse of the term seems likely to give offense, but why exactly? Harriet Baldwin from English Partnerships, commenting at a BURA seminar the other day, got her audience smiling by describing how residents in a neighbourhood where she happened to be working told her it was she, not they, who was hard to reach - you have a secretary, you have an answer-phone, you have voicemail, you have email, but we can't speak to you. You're hard to reach. We're not. We live here, this is where you'll find us. Indeed. But this does not mean that there are not people who are hard to reach. It means that it is a mistake to refer to certain residents - most residents, especially those who are community activists - by that term. And it doesn't help to misuse the term to refer to people just because it requires a bit of an effort to make contact. I think there are people who are 'hard to reach' and who can be described as such. There are people who are isolated, not known even to their neighbours or to agencies, often suffering from illness or problems with their mental health, perhaps moving accommodation frequently or occasionally living homeless. There are people who live secretly in conditions of brutal oppression and violence. How easy to reach were the offspring of Josef Fritzl? If we deny that some people are hard to reach, are we not calling into question the rationale for the services designed to help them? If it is argued that the term is patronising, where does that leave you if you have to design and deliver services for people in great need, irrespective of their receptivity to that service? It matters to me that the society I live in can be compassionate towards people in need, and will make collective effort to extend resources to them so that their quality of life might be improved on their terms. I'm not sure that it helps to deny that there can be relative difficulties in getting those services to them. Maybe we need to be a little more scrupulous in our use of language.

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