Heather Whitestone was the first woman with a disability to be crowned Miss America in 1994. - Press of Atlantic City: Miss America Atlantic City

Heather Whitestone was the first woman with a disability to be crowned Miss America in 1994.

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Posted: Friday, April 26, 2013 9:45 am

The following was first published in The Press of Atlantic City on Sept. 9, 1995 as Heather Whitestone was finishing her year as Miss America 1995

An hour after Kimberly Aiken of South Carolina was crowned Miss America in September 1993, Heather Whitestone, a visitor from Alabama, took her mother's arm and, with a few workmen as witnesses, walked down the 104-foot runway that jutted into the cavernous, now deserted Convention Hall.

It was that night the two-time, first runner-up to Miss Alabama made a decision: She would try one more time to get to the Miss America finals in Atlantic City. She would enter the Miss Alabama Pageant for the third time.

"When I walked on the stage, I wasn't sure I wanted to go back (to the Miss Alabama Pageant). It was so much work," she said in August. "But when I walked down the runway, I realized if I worked hard and believed in myself, I could do it."

You know the rest of the story: Whitestone became Miss Alabama and Miss America, too. And not just any Miss America.

Whitestone, who is deaf, is the first Miss America with a disability. Hands down, she is the Miss America to best personify the real American ideal: that those who work hard and believe in themselves will succeed.

No Miss America has overcome the obstacles Whitestone did. This is a Miss America who doctors said might not get past the third grade but became a college honor student. This Miss America struggled for six years to learn to say her last name correctly. She spent hours every night learning to pronounce words she could barely hear. She learned to dance by counting beats to music.

For Whitestone, trampling over obstacles has become a way of life .

"Everybody has problems," she said early in her reign. "Some are fiscal, some emotional, some physical. But the biggest handicap in the whole world is attitude."

The nation embraced this new "imperfect" Miss America. The governor of Alabama insisted she speak at his inauguration. She signed the national anthem at the Super Bowl. She danced at the Crystal Cathedral in Culver City, Calif.

The White House, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, talk show hosts, schools for children with disabilities, colleges, churches, New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman - everyone wanted her to speak, dance, be on a committee or just visit.

In her triumphant year, she traveled 20,000 miles a month and made more than $250,000 in appearance fees.

So, it's a good thing Whitestone, who was 21 when crowned, didn't do what she wanted to the first week - quit.

She was being attacked unmercifully by advocates for the deaf who criticized her for lip reading and speaking instead of using sign language.

"It was not a happy beginning. ... The criticism was very painful," Whitestone said, obviously still hurt. "I told them I'm not against signing. I support all communication options. I'm sure they saw that."

The controversy has followed Whitestone all her life. In her book on her daughter's life ("Yes, You Can, Heather"), Whitestone's mother Daphne Gray describes the heartbreak of Whitestone's profound hearing loss in infancy and the agony of making the difficult choices that followed.

The most difficult was how Whitestone should be taught to communicate with the world: by sign language, used only by the deaf; by speech, used by the hearing world; or by one of several combinations of the two.

Gray chose the difficult auditory verbal approach, called acoupedic, which uses residual hearing and intensive speech and sound training. Whitestone wears a hearing aid that allows her to pick up some sounds. She can even use a telephone.

"I can hear some sounds ... but it depends on the voice," she said. "Men's voices are too deep, too low."

The great benefit of Whitestone's training is that it allows her to participate independently in the hearing world. She is grateful now that she persevered and says if her child were deaf she would use it.

"I would probably choose at first the oral way," she said. "But I would be willing to work with whatever was best for the child."

Of course, she hopes her child is not deaf. "It's very, very difficult," she said.

That's an understatement. The work was constant. Homework, behavior, asking for a drink of juice - everything took longer.

Even today, carrying on a conversation takes enormous concentration and energy, for Whitestone must watch lips, interpret sounds and think about her own enunciation. Not understanding a question kept her from winning at least one of the half dozen pageants she entered.

Today she communicates with an intensity of eye contact and body language that makes her irresistible. Interviewers are told to speak slowly and clearly; there can be no distractions. Whitestone "connects" with everyone.

But does she have fun - real fun? Probably not.

"I had no social life for three years," she said about time spent trying to win the Miss Alabama crown. The effort, which added to her already busy schedule as a dancer and student, consumed her life.

Add one more year to win the Alabama crown and another as Miss America, and she's up to almost six years "without a life."

"The hardest thing is I had only one day off each month," she said, then her face lights up with a laugh. "But someone told me once that when you become a parent, you have no days off!"

She lives for the joyful moments. Thousands of smiling, excited children, many with disabilities, were inspired by her this year. The one she remembers the most is the young deaf and blind boy in Oregon who thought she wore a "clown" on her head, instead of a crown. When the mistake was explained to him, he asked Whitestone to share the crown with him.

"As soon as he touched it, he was overwhelmed with joy. It gave me great joy, too," she said quietly.

Whitestone also caught the eye of government leaders who can make a difference for the disabled. President Clinton appointed her to the Committee for the Employment of People with Disabilities.

She spoke in Washington to Cabinet members and to state legislators. She's met with Newt Gingrich and Elizabeth Dole, wife of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Robert Dole.

Whitestone was also the first Miss America invited to speak to the National Press Club. It was there she launched a national campaign for her Early Detection Program for Deafness. Whitestone says more than 20,000 babies with impaired hearing are born each a year and early diagnosis - before age 2 - is crucial to their future development.

Meanwhile, Whitestone has been showered with awards. Her favorite? The prestigious American Academy of Achievement Award for Community Service.

"It was a big honor," she said. "Some other winners have been Nobel winners and people like George Bush and Lady Bird Johnson." Winners in other categories this year included actor Robin Williams, the Rev. Robert Schuller, TV journalist Mike Wallace and Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks.

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