Heather Whitestone, who is most famous for becoming Miss America’s first winner to have a disability in 1995, is profoundly deaf. However, it hasn’t prevented her from reaching her dreams and spreading awareness about the deaf community during her time as Miss America and beyond that. Not only does she display beauty, she displays compassion and intelligence as a motivational speaker and as an author of four inspirational books. Furthermore, Whitestone has served in various prestigious committees and boards in the United States, which advocate topics such as people with disabilities and those who are deaf. As an influential person in the deaf community and the first woman ever with a disability to win Miss America, Heather Whitestone shows that growing up deaf doesn’t have to hinder your ambitions but instead push you to accomplish more than you ever imagined.
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On February 24, 1973, in Dothan, Alabama, Heather Leigh Whitestone was born as a healthy, hearing baby (mcbdds.org). Suddenly when she was 18 months old, she developed an alarmingly high fever from the Haemophilus influenza virus (mcbdds.org). Fortunately, the doctors were able to give her two antibiotics to ease her fever before things got fatal (mcbdds.org). The doctors later released her and was back to living a normal life. As a few months passed, her mother noticed that Heather didn’t get startled when she had accidentally dropped some metal pans in the kitchen, which alarmed her, so she took Heather to a children’s hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was diagnosed as profoundly deaf (premierespeakers.com). This meant that she completely lost her hearing in both ears due to “the virus, the antibiotics or a combination of both” (premierespeakers.com). The doctor even predicted that she wouldn’t live after 8 or 9 years of age (startasl.com).
Although she grew up most of her life as profoundly deaf, it did not prevent her from living a normal life and learning how to speak. Her parents enrolled her in dance classes, since they thought “learning rhythm would help her learn speech” (startasl.com). She also was mainstreamed into a public school, where she “learned to speak and read lips without an interpreter” (McElveen). After she started to struggle in her classes, Whitestone began attending Missouri’s Central Institute for the Deaf when she was twelve (mcbdds.org). In three years, she completed six grade levels (mcbdds.org). Then, she moved back to Alabama and graduated with her fellow classmates at a public high school with a 3.6 GPA, and during her senior year, she finally learned American Sign Language (startasl.com). As determined as ever, Whitestone continued her education at Jacksonville State University, while simultaneously practicing ballet (mcbdds.org).
As she began her pageantry career, her first pageant was “the Shelby County Junior Miss Program (now called the Distinguished Young Women Program)”, which sparked her interest in becoming a beauty queen (signingsavy.com). Whitestone won her first title as Miss Jacksonville State University and was later crowned Miss Alabama (mcbdds.org). As Alabama’s representative in the 1995 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, Whitestone received no assistance from an interpreter (Roberts). Her S.T.A.R.S. program, which “stands for ‘Success Through Action and Realization of your dream’”, distinguished her from the other competitors and accredited it as the key to her success in life (mcbdds.org). Her five-point plan, correlating to the number of points on a star, focused on a “positive attitude, belief in a dream, the willingness to work hard, facing obstacles, and building a strong support team” to teach children, and people in both the deaf and hearing communities, an effective strategy to achieve their dreams (mcbdds.org). By the end of the pageant, she had charmed the judges with her personality, talents in dancing, grace, and beauty, leading her to become the first deaf Miss America and the first Miss America with a disability. She had only realized it when she read the lips of Miss Virginia Cullen Johnson, the first runner-up, who told her she had won (Roberts). Along with the positive feedback from her win, she received backlash “for lip reading and speaking instead of using sign language” (pressofatlanticcity.com). Following her historical accomplishment, she was given a $35,000 scholarship, which she used to continue her education at Jacksonville State University, where she later graduated and became an inspiration to many in both the hearing and deaf communities (Roberts).
During her reign as Miss America 1995, she spent most of her year assisting and teaching deaf and hearing children the importance of having a positive mindset, no matter how troubling times can be (startasl.com). In fact her campaign was, “‘Youth Motivation: Anything is Possible’” (Roberts). Many institutions, schools, talk shows, and even the White House had requested a visit from her, where she made “more than $250,000 in appearance fees” (pressofatlanticcity.com). During her time as Miss America, former President Clinton had chosen her to be apart of “the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities” (premierespeakers.com). A few years later, amidst former President George W. Bush’s term, Whitestone was appointed by Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, “to serve on [the] board of the National Center of Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders,” while also being apart of “the National Council on Disability, the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education” (premierespeakers.com, mcbdds.org). “She was also a spokesperson for the Helen Keller Eye Research Foundation and the Starkey Hearing Aid Foundation” and was selected by former President George W. Bush “and [was] confirmed by the United States Senate to serve on the board of the National Council of Disability” (startasl.com, premierespeakers.com).
In addition to serving on several boards and committees, where she continually advocated for the deaf community, she began “a national campaign for her Early Detection Program for Deafness”. She also became an author of four books: Listening With My Heart, Believing The Promise, Let God Surprise You, and Heavenly Crowns, which all talk about the various life lessons she’s learned growing up deaf, like never giving up and staying positive, how God has a plan for everyone, deaf and hearing, and striving to become holier each day (premierespeakers.com). With the multitude of milestones she has experienced, one of her most significant milestones was changing her name to Heather Whitestone McCallum, after marrying her current husband, John McCallum, “a hearing man” (startasl.com). With her husband, they have four sons, where they currently live “on Saint Simons Island, Georgia” (premierespeakers.com). In 2002, after an incident where she couldn’t hear one of her sons in need, she went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital and got a Cochlear Implant inserted in her right ear (mcbdds.org, Belsky). As a response to losing all of her hearing in her left ear, she went back to embed another Cochlear Implant, which helped her hear her family and the world around her for the first time after twenty-nine years (Belsky).
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As she continues to live a normal life as a mother, wife, and motivational speaker, she reiterates the importance of positive thinking, as it has helped her turn her disability into fuel for her dreams. Currently, and throughout her whole life, she has used American Sign Language, reading lips, and most frequently, speech to navigate and communicate the world independently, without the assistance of the interpreter. With the circumstances she was given, it seemed like she had no hope of living a normal life, but with the determination and hard work from her parents, and most importantly from herself, she was mainstreamed into a public school for most of her years in education, began to develop her speech skills at an early age, and eventually became the first Miss America with a disability. Above all, she reminds me that those who are deaf, whether they were born deaf or developed it later on in life, are just like everybody else and can achieve and do the same things as those who can hear. Through my research, it has taught me that each deaf person’s level of hearing can change throughout their lives and that those in the deaf community certainly have more patience and dedication than most people, just like Heather Whitestone who managed to achieve what many might say was the impossible dream.
- Belsky, Marta. “Living Loud: Heather Whitestone – First Deaf Miss America: Signing Savvy Blog.” Signing Savvy, 16 Sept. 2014, www.signingsavvy.com/blog/158/Living+Loud%3A+Heather+Whitestone+-+First+Deaf+Miss+America.
- “Heather Whitestone Bio.” Heather Whitestone | Bio | Premiere Speakers Bureau, premierespeakers.com/christian/heather-whitestone/bio.
- “Heather Whitestone Was the First Woman with a Disability to Be Crowned Miss America in 1994.” Press of Atlantic City, 26 Apr. 2013, www.pressofatlanticcity.com/missamerica/heather-whitestone-was-the-first-woman-with-a-disability-to/article_9b94a34e-aeaa-11e2-9ac9-0019bb2963f4.html.
- “Heather Whitestone – The First Deaf Miss America.” Start ASL Heather Whitestone The First Deaf Miss America Comments, www.startasl.com/heather-whitestone-2.
- “Heather Whitestone.” Heather Whitestone | Mont Co. Board of Dev Disability Services (OH), www.mcbdds.org/286/Heather-Whitestone.
- McElveen, Timmons. “Heather Whitestone.” Heather Whitestone – Start ASL, 17 May 2017, www.startasl.com/heather-whitestone.
- Roberts, Roxanne. “DEAF DANCER FROM ALABAMA IS CROWNED MISS AMERICA.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Sept. 1994, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1994/09/18/deaf-dancer-from-alabama-is-crowned-miss-america/8da796b1-b08e-4127-8f0b-4d12ac1abd86/.
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