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November 23, 2003

'I accept myself'

From: Richmond Times Dispatch, VA - Nov 23, 2003

Amy breaks through her outer, inner barriers


During a recent visit to Gates Elementary School in Chesterfield County, Amy Tussing introduced herself to a dozen hearing-impaired children and told them a little about her quest for the title of Miss Deaf America.

Then she sang with her hands.

With Joey McIntyre's "Stay the Same" playing in the background, Amy signed the words she knew by heart.

Don't you ever wish You were someone else You were meant to be The way you are exactly

A few of the children followed her lead, waving their hands over their head as they signed the lyrics with her. The blaring music was loud enough that Amy could make out most of the words. She closed her eyes to each verse as the song's meaning hit home.

Don't you ever say You don't like the way you are When you learn to love yourself You're better off by far

"I think the song gave a sense of identification to the children," said Amy, 20. "I experienced the same sort of thing when I was growing up."

For years, Amy wished she were someone else. Someone with perfect features. Someone who could hear gentle raindrops hitting the roof at night.

"There was a time when I wanted to change who I was," she conceded. "I wanted to be popular."

Born with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS), Amy is hearing-impaired and blind in one eye. A genetic birth defect, TCS is characterized by a range of facial abnormalities, including downward slanting eyes, small lower jaw and malformed ears. These anomalies can cause hearing, breathing and eating problems.

Amy can hear very loud sounds, like blaring music, but relies on sign lan-

guage and lip reading to communicate. Expressively, she uses speech and sign language; receptively, she uses sign language and lip reading to understand what is said to her.

"Amy is the most wonderful person I've ever met," said Pat Trice, one of Amy's former teachers at Salem Church Middle School. "She has always held her head up high, even when she didn't have the confidence to do it."

Since she was a child, Amy had imagined walking elegantly across a stage to compete in a beauty pageant. The judges and the audience, she envisioned, would marvel at her confidence and her looks. When she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the crown being placed on her head.

Then she would return to reality and gaze at her reflection in the mirror. She figured she would always be identified by her appearance.

She was wrong.

Over the past few years, Amy has learned a life-changing lesson. Once she accepted herself for who she was, others did, too.

"I was trying to change myself to get people to like me," Amy said. "Then I realized I just had to be myself."

The epiphany led Amy to the stage. With support from Trice, she fulfilled her dream of competing in a pageant by entering the Miss Deaf Virginia contest in Fairfax in July. The event was sponsored by the Virginia Association of the Deaf.

"I didn't want to do it," Amy said. "I was nervous, shy and insecure all at once. But Ms. Trice wasn't going to let me off the hook."

Amy impressed the judges during the platform competition as she spoke about the need to help homeless people and animals, as well as the importance of bringing the hearing and deaf communities together. During the talent portion of the pageant, Amy signed the national anthem.

"Amy won our hearts," said Cindy Millard Malone, state pageant director for Miss Deaf Virginia. "She showed what is truly inside."

And the lingering doubts began to fade. The butterflies were fluttering in her stomach, Amy said, but they were no match for her growing confidence.

Perhaps the judges saw that, too. They awarded her Best in Platform and Best in Talent before crowning her Miss Deaf Virginia.

"It was a life-changing experience for me," said Amy, who will compete for the Miss Deaf America crown in Kansas City, Mo., next July. "Since I was a kid, I wanted to do a pageant. But I didn't think that was very realistic. Now, I believe anything is possible."

She is bit worried, however, that she won't be able to afford the trip to Kansas City. She hopes to find a job to help pay the costs, and the Virginia Association of the Deaf is accepting donations.

"I know there are going to be many people in Kansas City watching," Amy said. "I'm going to be nervous, but I'm looking forward to it."

Even if she returns to Richmond without the crown, Amy said, she will be a winner.

"Because of all this, I have the confidence to believe in myself," she said. "Now, I accept myself and I know that no one is perfect.

"Even if I could, I wouldn't change a thing. If I were a different person, I would not have accomplished what I have today. I believe that God has control of every identity. This is just the one he made for me."

. . .

Amy learned to sign before she could speak. Her parents, Jerry and Sandra, are deaf.

Her father lost his hearing to scarlet fever at age 4. Her mother also has Treacher Collins Syndrome and, like her daughter, grew up with low self-esteem.

"Growing up, I can remember my mom telling me . . . 'God just wanted us to be this way,'" Amy said. "But growing up was hard. I'd come home from school frustrated. I sometimes felt there was no hope for me."

Middle school was especially difficult. Kids made fun of Amy's appearance, calling her names like "E.T." She confided in her mother, who experienced the same ridicule, and her best friend, Crystal Powell.

"She's not the type of person to feel sorry for herself," Crystal said. "But when she was younger, I don't think she accepted herself. I always told her to not worry about what other people were saying. The only thing that matters is what's inside."

Amy taught Crystal sign language, and in high school she started an American Sign Language group for hearing students. The teens visited elementary schools to sign songs for and read to hearing-impaired children.

"She is a good role model," said Amy's father, an overnight stockman at Wal-Mart. "We want that for her. We want her to encourage other deaf girls - let them know anything is possible."

Instead of taking special education classes in school, Amy was mainstreamed into the regular program and earned As, Bs and Cs. Interpreters attended class with her. After a while, Amy got used to keeping her eyes on them as well as the teacher.

"Amy has always been so hard working," Trice said. "It's her makeup and her character."

She graduated from L.C. Bird High School in 2002 and now takes classes at John Tyler Community College. She plans to transfer to Gallaudet University in Washington next year. After graduation, she wants to become a teacher for the deaf.

"We are very, very proud of her," said Amy's mother, a mental health/mental retardation counselor. "I've always told her that deaf and hearing people can do the same things. When she was younger, I was concerned about letting her out in the world. But just like a bird, you have to let them spread their wings."

Interpreters continue to sign for Amy in college, sitting close to the teacher so that Amy can see them and the blackboard at the same time.

"She does really well," said Yvonne Turk, adjunct professor at John Tyler. "She handles things really well and is one of those students who is always at class and always on time."

Her efforts are paying off. Amy earns mostly As and Bs. In her spare time, she visits elementary schools to sign songs and talk with hearing-impaired students about the challenges they face.

It's these experiences that are leading Amy toward a career in teaching.

"I think that I could teach kids what I learned growing up," Amy said. "I think I could be a positive role model. I've learned acceptance and maturity through the years."

Helping Amy

The Virginia Association of the Deaf is accepting donations to help Amy in her quest for the Miss Deaf America crown.

TO HELP: Make checks payable to the Virginia Association of the Deaf (be sure to put "Miss Deaf Virginia" in the memo) and mail to: Tim Lavelle, VAD Treasurer, 9703 Galsworth Court, Fairfax, VA 22032.


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