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April 15, 2005

Miss America '95 speaks about life without hearing

From: The Daily Texan - University - Austin,TX,USA - Apr 15, 2005

By Melissa Mixon

When Heather Whitestone was 1 year old, doctors told her family that she would not be able to drive a car or pass the third-grade. They said she would never be able to live a normal life.

At 32, Whitestone has proved them wrong on all three predictions, though one could argue about the last one.

After all, she became Miss America.

Whitestone spoke to a small crowd in an Art Building lecture hall Thursday night about the challenges she had to overcome in life and about her experience as Miss America.

Her challenge: She is "profoundly deaf."

The UT Chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association sponsored the event to help "bridge the gap between the hearing and non-hearing," said Krista Wagner, a communication sciences and disorders senior and president of UT-NSSLHA.

Whitestone is the second keynote speaker the organization has hosted on campus. Last year's speaker was Christy Smith, the first deaf cast member on the TV show Survivor. Wagner said UT-NSSLHA chose Whitestone because "she has been incredibly inspirational."

Whitestone became Miss America in 1995, making her the first woman with a disability to be crowned in the pageant's 75-year history.

She has been "profoundly deaf," with no hearing in either ear, since she was 18 months old.

Whitestone said she was only diagnosed after her mother dropped a pile of pans on the kitchen floor on Christmas day. Everyone reacted to the loud sound, but Whitestone said she did not flinch.

At age three she received a hearing aid in her left ear, and her mother began teaching her sign language and how to sound out words and speak. It took her six years to learn how to say her last name correctly.

"Sometimes I was furious and hated my mom. But she believed she was doing the right thing," Whitestone said. "Today I thank God she didn't give up."

Whitestone's message to the audience was just that: Don't give up.

"Anything is possible with help and a positive attitude," she said.

After attending a school for deaf children, Whitestone entered and graduated from a public high school in Alabama and later enrolled in college, majoring in accounting.

While in college, she also started entering beauty pageants. Whitestone said she initially saw the pageants as a way to help pay for school, but eventually she entered to compete. After three attempts, Whitestone was crowned Miss Alabama and within months was competing as Miss America.

In previous pageant interviews, Whitestone said she pretended to be able to hear, but she eventually told judges she was deaf.

She said one judge asked her how she handled her handicap.

"I told him 'the same way you would handle yours,'" Whitestone said.

As Miss America, she traveled the world speaking to deaf children, state senators, corporations and nonprofit organizations.

Whitestone said she is able to hear more today than ever before.

In August 2002, Whitestone received cochlear implants, electronic devices that restore partial hearing to the deaf.

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted and stimulate the auditory nerve, allowing individuals who are profoundly hearing impaired to receive sound. The implants are activated by a device worn outside the ear.

"The first sound that entered my ear was my husband asking 'Can you hear me?'" Whitestone said. "When it first entered, my brain didn't understand this is about sound, and I heard terrible vibrating."

It took eight months for Whitestone to adjust to hearing and processing sounds with the cochlear implants in her right ear. She said with her hearing aid and cochlear implants she is able to hear sounds she had never heard before, like her youngest son sniffling and her neighbors' dogs barking in the back yard. Whitestone closed with a story about Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller.

"You can make a difference in the world by helping one person and not even know it," Whitestone said.

© 2005 The Daily Texan