Miss America with a Difference

September 21, 1994

The Miss America pageant has crossed barriers before, but the crowning last weekend of Miss Alabama, Heather Whitestone, carried special significance. Ms. Whitestone, who is deaf, is the first Miss America with a physical disability.

Her achievement underscores the fact that the most visible obstacles to success are not always the toughest ones to overcome. She won the contest's talent category with a classical ballet performance, following the music by counting beats and coordinating her movements with changes in pitch. Her poise, courage and contagious optimism won the hearts of the judges and crowd alike. No wonder she has chosen as her theme, "Anything is Possible."

Ms. Whitestone's crown comes at a momentous time for deaf people. This is an era when a flowering of deaf culture offers choices never before available. From the dark times when they were outcasts to the well-meaning efforts of more recent times that only maimed their ability to communicate, the deaf have a history that provides a telling lesson in society's dysfunctional approach to disabilities.

The new Miss America also illustrates the fact that deaf people cannot be stereotyped, particularly in the ways in which they JTC deal with their condition. Heather Whitestone was not born deaf, but lost virtually all her hearing as a young child. Those initial months of hearing no doubt influenced her eventual decision to rely not on sign language, but to communicate instead by lip reading and speaking. Even so, in her first promenade as Miss America her waves to the crowd included the sign for "I love you," a winsome reminder of her difference.

Ms. Whitestone's way of coping with her hearing loss does not suit every deaf person. Within the country's increasingly vibrant deaf community, many people would criticize her decision not to embrace sign language. After all, lip reading has built-in limitations, and learning to enunciate well enough to be understood can be an excruciating process for deaf people. Meanwhile, American Sign Language offers them an unparalleled way of expressing a much broader range of thought and emotion, although to a more limited audience.

That lively debate -- whether to revel in deaf culture, learn to interact with the hearing world or try to do both -- will continue. The lesson in Ms. Whitestone's success is that she was given a choice, something too long denied to deaf children.

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