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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Women and Deafness: Double Visions

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Heather Whitestone, even before becoming Miss America and igniting a fury, experienced this firsthand. In 1992, she competed in the Miss Deaf Alabama competition, where she was trounced because of her choice to employ Signing Exact English and to voice (SimCom). Unable to fully understand the ASL of the interviewer (or the judges)—and their inability to understand her—ironically “handicapped” Whitestone, certainly posing a barrier to the prize. In addition, the usual camaraderie described by contestants about behind-the-scenes socializing was starkly missing for her at this contest. In fact, on an outing after the competition, Whitestone’s peers glared at her and made disparaging remarks because she voiced her order to a waitress while the others used signs and writing.36 As Whitestone wrote in her autobiography, “Just because I spoke, had a hearing family, danced ballet, and used signing exact English, they decided that I could not fit into the deaf culture, that I was not an ‘ideal’ deaf person.”37 Members of the Deaf world likely respond: “Exactly.” As an “out” oral deaf person, Whitestone was “outted” by the women who claimed cultural Deafness as their common, beautiful, and beautifying bond.

Whitestone’s victory at the 1994 Miss America pageant fueled a passionate dialogue within the Deaf community, as well as between Whitestone and Deaf culture activists. As an outspoken oralist advocate, Whitestone represented the exception rather than the norm of deafness. Her “anything is possible,” motto—the overcomer image—resonated with mainstream society, making her one of the best-known Miss Americas. Whitestone’s deaf “performance” exemplified her “can-do” platform. During the final round, the interview, Whitestone marked herself as deaf by wearing her hearing aids. In fact, her hairstyle—swept up—displayed them prominently. In this way, she specifically acknowledged her physical deafness while distancing herself from cultural Deafness. The latter she perceived as the true disability because it separates and distinguishes individuals from mainstream society. This interesting play among average, normal, and exceptional echoes traditional Deaf cultural strategies regarding the concepts of disability and normalcy. But for many contemporary deaf people, Whitestone’s “overcoming” strategy went too far. A Deaf Life magazine poll that year claimed that among its readers, 55 percent felt Whitestone did not represent deaf people.38 In another article, a deaf social worker admitted that many of her peers initially celebrated Whitestone’s win, remarking that “it’s always a great joy to see a deaf person move on and be treated like the others.”39 The article goes on to claim that such successes are “encouraging: having a disability need not prevent you from being beautiful or glamorous or successful. You can have a disability and still reach the peak of ‘perfection,’ the ‘ideal.’”40 Belying the ambivalence within the Deaf world about disability, “passing,” and oralism, the author asked: “What if the ‘deaf heroine’ is an oralist?”41 Excessively virginal, sweet, sheltered, pretty, compliant, and hopeful, and with a disability to overcome that importantly did not hinder her perfection of superficial beauty, Whitestone was at once marked as disabled by her hearing aids and yet also invisibly disabled. By “overcoming” her deafness, too, she remained an ideal mainstream female beauty.

But she was not an ideal to the culturally Deaf world, and they rejected her attempts to “speak” for them. Whitestone lamented:

I was beginning to think that my bright hopes of influencing the deaf community would vanish like morning mist. . . . I felt that some deaf people looked at me as a sort of freak. . . . I was willing to lend my voice to help them, but they didn’t seem to care. No matter how hard I tried to talk about my platform . . . some deaf people always managed to bring up the controversy about speaking versus signing.42

Whitestone’s similarity to Helen Heckman in the 1920s is striking. They both were dancers and oralists who used their bodies even more than voices—signed or vocal—in a wholesome yet alluring dramatic performance of hyperfemininity; they are the truly assimilated. Yet this so-called “assimilation” is achieved, ironically, by being “pedestaled.”43 Put on a pedestal, they remain, in a sense “outcast” (or rather “up-cast”) in a paradoxical distant but “assimilated” position. Their disability—and from a cultural perspective, their deafness—is invisible except as an ornament of their exceptionalness. They were, indeed, the mainstream ideal of a deaf woman.

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