By Daniel J. Vance
Ten years later we still fondly remember Heather Whitestone of Alabama as the first Miss America with a disability.
Diagnosed as "profoundly deaf" at 18 months following a severe illness, now 32, she has turned her disability on end. "While a high school senior, I learned that God didn't make mistakes and He allowed disabilities to happen to some people for good reasons," Heather wrote to me via email recently.
She took a long, hard road to become Miss America 1995.
Growing up, her teachers simply weren't trained to teach her. She was "held back" in second grade and nearly again in fourth grade when she begged to be sent to a school for the deaf. "My mother didn't want me learning sign language, so she put me in an oral school for the deaf," she said.
There, she quickly caught up with her public school peers, advancing two grade levels each year for three years. She reentered public school at 14 as a ninth grader. "The oral school for the deaf gave me educational skills," she said, "and the public school socializing skills with the hearing world, which helped me communicate well at the Miss America Pageant."
Fans still ask how she synchronized her dancing with the music at the Miss America Pageant. "What I did (for the most part) was count the [beats] while feeling the music on my hand on the speaker for two years before dancing on that stage. On stage, as the music started, I began counting the [beats] memorized in my heart. That's how I danced."
Her Miss America platform was to motivate people to overcome their obstacles and believe anything is possible with God's help. She and her family then created STARS: Success Through Action and Realization of your Dreams. Its five points: 1) a positive attitude 2) a goal 3) a willingness to work hard 4) a realistic view of obstacles 5) and having a support team.
"My parents were told by doctors that a normal life would be impossible for a deaf person," Heather wrote. "They said I would not go beyond the third grade, speak with my voice or drive on my own. Now I speak on television without sign language, drive my boys to school and have attended college." She also travels the world via STARS, speaking to businesses, churches and nonprofit organizations.