When The Subject of Your Story Can’t Hear, Speak, Read, Write, or Sign

A fascinating behind-the-story story: Voice of San Diego reporter Adrian Florido set out to find a family, he writes, “whose experience could illustrate the day-to-day challenge for Burmese refugees” in San Diego, since “more than 200 Burmese families have arrived [in that city] since 2006.” In the process, Florido met a 24-year-old man named Har Sin and wound up writing a two-part story about him. Har Sin was unable to hear, speak, read, write, or use a sign language, and here is Florido reflecting on the challenges of reporting that story:

We could hardly communicate with him. That meant we couldn’t be certain Har Sin knew we wanted to write about him.

I carried a little yellow notebook. Sam had his camera. Har Sin knew that I was a writer and that Sam was a photographer — that those were our jobs. We’d been able to communicate at least that much using improvised gestures. But did he know that when we were showing up at his apartment and following him to the park and to his school, that we were working?

I reconstructed many of the scenes from Har Sin’s past through interviews with his family and people who knew him from the refugee camp. I spoke with them through an interpreter and increasingly on my own, as their English improved. I spoke with resettlement workers and volunteers who became a part of Har Sin’s life. And I spent many hours trying to communicate with Har Sin himself.

That was the most difficult. Early on, we’d sat down with him, opened a newspaper, and tried to get him to understand that we wanted to put him in the newspaper (we didn’t try, at that point, to convey the nuances of online versus print).

We weren’t convinced he understood.

Florido plans to “continue checking in with Har Sin” in the coming months.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.