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Everyone is handicapped, Miss America ’95 says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A former Miss America who considers her deafness “a gift from God” told employees of the Baptist Sunday School Board “we all have the same handicap.”
Speaking to a packed chapel service June 27 in Nashville, Tenn., Heather Whitestone said the common handicap is that “we cannot see Jesus or hear Jesus; we have to feel him and hear his voice in our heart.”
Crowned Miss America in 1995, Whitestone has been profoundly deaf since she was 18 months old. Her lifelong challenges to communicate and to achieve personal goals are detailed in “Listening to My Heart,” her recently released biography published by Doubleday.
“Communication has always been my greatest obstacle, and it will be a problem until I die,” she said. “Deafness is a gift from God because it helps me listen to him. And I can’t hear people gossip behind my back,” she laughed.
Reared Episcopalian, she told of a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher who caused her to realize she needed to confess her sins and to ask Jesus into her heart.
“I didn’t understand what she was talking about,” Whitestone recalled. “Why should I ask Jesus to come into my heart because I already love him and I believe that he is the son of God?”
But she began to read the Bible and came to understand what she needed to do. She returned to Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., to profess her faith in Jesus before the congregation.
“Doing that as a teenager was very difficult,” she said. “It took a lot of courage, but I’m glad I did because Jesus is the key to my success. He has helped me to overcome so many obstacles, to achieve God’s dream for me.”
Growing up in the hearing world, Whitestone said, she sometimes felt left out of family conversations at holidays. At the same time, when she entered a “Miss Deaf Alabama” competition, other contestants criticized her for using her voice instead of American Sign Language. To make matters worse, she had learned Signing Exact English, a more advanced vocabulary and totally different from American Sign Language.
“That discouraged me a great deal,” she said. “I went home and I said to God, ‘Who am I? I do not feel I am a part of the hearing world, but the deaf world says I am not part of them either.'”
While reading the Bible she came upon John 20:29, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
“God made me feel wanted,” she recounted. “He said, ‘You are my child just like anybody else. It’s just that I have a different plan for each of you.’
“That’s why I chose the title for my book,” she said. “Everybody has different dreams given by God. It is their responsibility to listen to God’s voice because only God knows what is best for all of us.”
Whitestone said after gaining the Miss America title, she realized that success is not easy.
“Once you become successful, you have a greater responsibility to be a role model. People are looking up to you, and the devil is trying to destroy your success. The devil doesn’t want people to know it is the Lord who helps you to be successful.”
To illustrate, Whitestone said the controversy surrounding the use of her voice instead of sign language continued to follow her through the news media to the point she considered giving up her title.
“I wanted to talk about Jesus, and I felt I would destroy the image of Jesus through this controversy.”
But she decided to hand the problem to God. Though the controversy followed her, she said, God used the controversy to help her create a positive image of the deaf community, allowing her to show support of those who use sign language and to talk about her faith.
Today Whitestone is married to John McCallum and lives in Atlanta, where they are members of First Baptist Church. She continues to receive invitations to speak, but tries to limit travel to allow maximum time at home with her husband.
For the future, she said she would like to finish her college degree and explore public relations work. For a career, however, she said, “I want to be a godly woman and a godly mother.
“God still has plans for us. You must love yourself as God loves you, no matter what others think of you. You can please God by doing what he wants you to do,” Whitestone said. “Don’t depend on yourself, don’t depend on money, don’t depend on a college degree or on spending too many hours making money to become a millionaire or to become famous. God has a greater plan than that.”

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  • Charles Willis