the gift of sound

SOPHIE Li talked flawless English, with such passion that you could see her face glowing and her eyes shining. She was normal, in every sense possible.

Sophie Li with bilaterial cochlear implant, image by Tim Carrafa, Herald Sun

So, when this third year Melbourne University’s Bachelor of Environments student confidently walked into the front of the lecture hall, she completely blew us with her gorgeous smile.

“Hi guys, my name is Sophie, and I’m going to quickly introduce you to cochlear implants, and go through it from a pretty much different point of view.”

With a mix heritage of a Chinese father, an Australian mother, and yet born in America, Sophie has surprisingly mastered her English. Right away you could see her radiant, easy-going personality beaming through the lecture hall. She was, indeed, a gorgeous young girl, with no disability whatsoever.

Yet she was diagnosed profoundly deaf when she was 18 month old.

“Deaf people have a few options in how to do communication. They could do signing, they could do cue speech, or they could do oral.

“My Dad’s Chinese, my Mom’s Australian, and we are living in America. That means I would have to learn three different kinds of sign language, so that was completely out of the question,” she said laughingly. “So my parents decided that I had to do oral.”

She had a cochlear implant at the age of 4, and another implant for the other ear at the age of 14.

“There is this process that every Deaf person has to go to through. It’s not just putting the thing on that person’s ear and off she goes – she is happy and fine. It doesn’t happen that way, there’s a lot of work involved.”

While talking about how cochlear implant changed her life, she also shared what it felt like to be not hearing.

“We can’t listen to a movie, we can’t even listen to a radio, or to music. That’s how tough the world was.”

I couldn’t imagine a world without sound. Yet even after having the implant which aided her hearing, she still struggled to find her place in the world.

“You never hear those sounds before. It’s like asking a blind person to see. It’s that hard. I was learning to hear and speak for the first time.”

At the age of 4, we were already forming our first sentences. We would also be understanding abstract concepts. Sophie, on the other hand, was just learning how to babble again. She was tested at the age of 9, and she still had the language of a 2.9 year old child. And that was already 5 years after the cochlear implant.

“The cochlear implant is not as sophisticated as your hearing. When you had your first cochlear implant, all the sounds are just rushing. Well, I’m not used to it, and I need to differentiate what you’re saying, to what they’re saying.”

There were so many challenges that young Sophie must faced. Even now, it was still not easy for her, and at times she found herself exhausted as she was struggling to hear a person over the loud music.

“Just because my cochlear implant is not a natural thing for me to control and direct so that I can hear, just you. While somehow you guys can do that,” she said. “I missed out things, I still do. It’s not the perfect technology to replace natural hearing.”

It’s true that when people have a cochlear implant, they are usually born to hearing families. And most hearing families want them to hear and speak, they don’t want them to sign.

“And there’s a change of identity. I wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for the cochlear implant. It’s just as simple as that. I’d probably still be in America, I’d probably be signing, …and I wouldn’t be as happy.

“Both my parents are ballet dancers. They want me to dance. They want me to hear music. And most of all they want me to be normal. And it’s not easy to be normal if you’re deaf. Special things have to be taken care of, even to be a part of a community. It’s hard, it’s really hard. And with cochlear implant I think that the change is for the better. It’s a sense of who you are.”

Li Chunxin with his daugter, Sophie Li. Image by The Sydney Morning Herald

Sophie Li is the daugther of Li Chunxin, who’s best known for his autobiography in Mao’s Last Dancer. She has been awarded the 2009 Graeme Clarke Scholarship, an award available only to those who have a bionic ear implant.

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