As I chatted over coffee with a couple of friends, both occupational therapists, they lamented the imminent closure of a program they’d worked hard to get up and running.
“The after-school social skills group is being shut down. They’ve redirected the funding into other services because almost nobody showed up! I don’t understand, parents say they don’t get enough help but when it’s offered to them they don’t come. What’s going wrong?”
It's a conversation I've had many times before, with speech therapists, psychologists, early intervention providers. All with similar frustrations - they put time and effort into creating services that they really believe in, only to find the initial rush of parent enthusiasm dries up a few weeks later. But amongst all their good intentions, they’ve overlooked one incredibly important fact...
People won’t use a service when the benefit is outweighed by the cost.
When it comes to special needs, that cost is not just financial. It's time and energy. And it’s this part of the equation that’s most often forgotten when designing services, where all of the focus goes into what will be provided rather than how. If we build it, they will come.
The social skills program ran on a weekday from 5-6pm. Parents had to stay, but siblings weren't allowed to. The centre was in the middle of town, with parking in a lot across a busy three-lane street. It doesn't matter how awesome that program was - it required babysitting, expensive parking, crossing a busy street with little kids, battling rush hour traffic in the middle of the city and starting dinner late for a tired and hungry family. That's waaaaaaaaay too much cost.
The resources within special needs families are often spread incredibly thin without a lot to spare. So if you’re offering a service that you want these families to utilize, either the cost for them needs to be low or the benefit needs to be big - so big that the drain on their valuable resources will be worth it.
So no matter what kind of service you provide - respite, playgroups, physical therapy, early intervention, support groups, workshops, seminars - it needs to help families without making their lives harder, by taking into account the costs as well as the benefits.
Even a free service can be too expensive for families that have overwhelming demands on their emotional, physical and mental resources. A user-friendly service is one that delivers benefits without adding to those demands...
Make it easy to get involved
Make it easy to get there
Make it easy to be there
Keep financial costs reasonable
Be mindful of language
Make it relevant
Socializing is a mixed bag
Offer different levels of service
The bottom line
When designing services for special needs families, most of the focus is on what the help looks like rather than how it is delivered... but no matter how awesome a service might be, it will have zero benefit if nobody can use it.
Understanding and reducing the cost of these services for families will go a long way towards providing much-needed assistance in a way that’s accessible to everybody.
Image: Claudio Matsuoka