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Sophie's choice: Ballet stars tell of coming to terms with daughter's deafness

Culture

One of Australia’s best known artistic couples have opened up about the family struggles and conflicts associated with trying to help their profoundly deaf daughter live with her disability.

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Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin and his wife, Mary, have told the ABC’s Australian Story program of their efforts to ensure their daughter, Sophie, would enjoy the opportunities of the hearing world despite her diagnosis.

However, Sophie resisted their attempts to ensure she was able to speak by fitting her with hearing aids and not teaching her sign language.

Li, whose life story was chronicled in the book Mao’s last Dancer, said he and Mary were told early on that once Sophie started signing she may not speak.

“I wanted what every mother wants, to hear my daughter’s voice,” she told Australian Story.

“You wait for their first word, the first sentence. It makes them independent in the world. It gives them opportunity. I wanted her to have all of that.”

Mary gave up her ballet career to concentrate on teaching Sophie to speak and hear, including ensuring she was fitted with a cochlear implant.

However, Sophie said she grew tired of constant speech therapy and struggled with her deafness as a teenager.

She told the program, which airs tonight, that it was not until she was a young adult that she found her “tribe”, other deaf people.

She became fluent in Auslan – Australian sign language – and blossomed socially after being told by a deaf colleague to simply accept her disability.

However, Sophie fell out with her parents when the Queensland Ballet opted to sponsor a charity that supports aditory-verbal approaches to assisting the deaf rather than sign language.

After becoming estranged from their daughter for a time, Li and Mary gradually saw Sophie’s point of view and learn Auslan themselves.

“It was a dream come true. It makes my life so much easier and it’s hilarious watching them learn,” Sophie told the program.

“We make a fool of ourselves, but that is a lot of joy, a lot of laughter,” Li says. “It’s going to be a work in progress for all of the while, but we are definitely into it.”

While continuing to teach at both the Australian Ballet and the Queensland Ballet, Mary has not appeared on stage for 29 years but will return as a guest star in the production of Sleeping Beauty later this year.

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