When Heather Whitestone became Miss America back in 1995, I watched the pageant with great interest. This was the first time in history that a profoundly deaf contestant had become Miss America. A video clip of that moment can be viewed here: Video of Heather Whitestone.
I read Heather's book, Listening With My Heart shortly after it was released. Two weeks ago, my library had the book, Yes, You Can, Heather! on a display shelf. Written by Daphne Gray, Heather's mother, she tells the story of raising a deaf child during a time when Auditory Verbal methods were not commonly known.
Daphne shares the long hours that were spent on language and speech: "...I had to devote all my time after supper to working with Heather on her speech therapy as well as her schoolwork--and now the Beka material on top of it all. Some nights we'd finish so late that I'd send Heather on to bed at 10 or 10:30 knowing I'd have to wake her up before five the next morning so we could go over the words for her spelling test."
Daphne had an amazing amount of dedication to her daughter--and it helped that Heather had an amazing amount of drive to match.
I found myself relating to Heather in a situation where Daphne tried to encourage Heather to be upfront and open about being deaf: "Like most teenagers, she wanted to belong and not stand out from the crowd. Usually she wore her hair in a style that covered her hearing aids. As a result, many of her high school classmates never realized Heather was deaf."
Yup, been there, done that. Did it so well that many students didn't even know that I wore a hearing aid until a news article appeared in the high school newspaper featuring me and my friend Shawn, who was also hard of hearing. It took me nearly a year after I became deaf before I could wear my hair up in a ponytail with my hearing aid perched on my ear. Comfortably. In public.
Daphne also touched on social bluffing and how difficult it was for Heather to participate in conversations. "Lunchtime was especially miserable for Heather," Daphne wrote. "She found it nearly impossible to pick voices out of the constant roar of cafeteria commotion in her ear. That meant she had to rely almost totally on lipreading around the lunch table. 'I get tired of asking my friends to repeat what I don't hear,' she admitted. 'And I think somtimes they get tired of me asking. So I just laugh when the people around me laugh. That makes me sad. I want to be part of the conversation. But I'm not.'"
That particular section of the book made me sad as well. I think it is so easy for us parents and professionals to get caught up in the accomplishments of deaf and hard of hearing people and forget that on a deeper level, if communication access isn't accommodated for, then deaf and hard of hearing people still get left out of conversations and social situations. From what I see in my own district, there's still a lot of social isolation going on and we're not addressing the social/emotional issues of mainstreamed students.
As for Heather, she has gone on to open her own company and line of beauty products. She's married and has three little ones of her own. She's a spokeswoman for the Starkey Foundation and Cochlear Americas and has bilateral cochlear implants.