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Interview with Heather Whitestone McCallum (HWM) Miss America 1995

Heather Whitestone McCallum

October 14, 2002
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Starkey Hearing Foundation's Great American Awards Gala

TOPIC - My Hearing Aid

AO/Beck: Hi Heather, once again it is a pleasure to meet with you.

HWM: Thanks Doug, it's a pleasure to meet with you too.

AO/Beck: Now that you've had your cochlear implant surgery, and your cochlear implant will be activated in mid-September, I think some people may have missed the fact that you've been successfully wearing a hearing aid on the left ear since childhood. So, in today's interview, I'd like to focus a little bit more on your thoughts regarding hearing aids.

HWM: Sure, that would be fine.

AO/Beck: Please tell me a little about the hearing aid you're wearing on the left ear?

HWM: Well, there is a lot to tell you, but I'll start by telling you that I am wearing a very powerful Starkey, 100 percent digital hearing aid on the left ear. This is the most powerful one they make, and I need it because I am profoundly deaf. Bill Austin, the founder of Starkey, fit me with this new hearing aid yesterday and it really is good.

AO/Beck: Can you tell me about the sounds you hear with the new hearing aid?

HWM: Yes, even though it's brand new, and even though I know it will take time for me to learn to use the new sounds, there are lots of new sounds. Yesterday, I was in the lobby of the hotel here in Minneapolis, and I heard the wheels of the luggage cart as the BellMan pushed it across the floor. That's a sound I probably would not have heard without the new digital hearing aid. I also noticed that when I went to get my credit card out of my purse, I was able to hear the scratching sounds that the credit card made as I removed it from my wallet. Another sound I noticed yesterday was that after I ate a snack of cheese and crackers, I had a few crumbs on my skirt I brushed them off, and I heard the sound of the paper napkin across the skirt - I haven't heard sounds like these since I was a tiny child, and it was really exciting.

AO/Beck: Heather, can you compare the sound of the new digital hearing aid, to the sound of the previous hearing aid?

HWM: Yes, the previous hearing aid was not digital, the new one is. The new hearing aid is much more powerful and I can even hear the air conditioning turning on and off. With the new hearing aid, I am noticing more s sounds, and with the previous hearing aid, I really couldn't hear those as well.

AO/Beck: That's an important observation, because the high frequency sounds, such as the s and the f and the t sounds carry lots of acoustic information which is very important with regard to actually understanding the particular word spoken. In other words, without the high frequencies, the words shoe, blue and true are similar, they are hard to tell apart based only on the low frequencies, because they share the sound oo. However, when we add in the high frequencies, the consonants can be better perceived, and then the words can be recognized as unique and different from each other.

HWM: Yes, it is definitely easier to tell the words apart with more of the s sounds included in the signal.

AO/Beck: What about telephone use with the hearing aids?

HWM: I have always used the phone on my hearing aid ear, my left ear. I was able to understand the telephone conversations pretty well over the last 7 years with the previous hearing aid. As long as the voice was familiar I've done very well with female voices, and I've done OK with male voices - as long as they use words I have heard before! It seems like the new digital is a little better with the phone too, but I haven't really used the phone enough to really tell you too much about that just yet. Basically, if I cannot understand the words over the phone, I think it's my responsibility to tell the caller I cannot understand that word, I am deaf, and I ask them to restate the sentence using different words. I think it's my responsibility to tell people that I'm deaf, and then I ask them to use communication strategies that make it easier for me to communicate, such as using more familiar words, or words that may have other sounds that I can perceive.

AO/Beck: That's an excellent point Heather. Many strategies within aural rehabilitation depend on the hearing impaired or the deaf person to take that responsibility, and to effectively manage the situation to maximize the communication event. You said it very well, and the strategy you use is excellent.

HWM: Another time when that point was made for me was when I was competing in the Miss America pageant for the very first time. I didn't tell the judges I was deaf, and I was pretending to be hearing. So I tried to conceal my deafness, and as a result, I couldn't understand when they said my name, or asked me a question, and I failed. So when I went back home, and my family saw the video-tape, they said it really was my own fault, because I didn't present myself honestly. My family told me that I should've told the judges I am deaf, and I should have made sure the judges spoke directly to me, and I should have made sure that I could see the judges faces when they spoke to me. So I have had to learn that lesson a few times, but I finally learned it.

AO/Beck: It must be very difficult to go up to new people and tell them you are deaf? It takes a lot of confidence and courage.

HWM: Yes, of course, it is very difficult, but at the right time and place, it is very important. I don't just walk don't the street telling everyone I'm deaf but it is important to do that in the proper situation. I was at the beach with my kids and my dog a few weeks ago. A teenage boy came by and wanted to pet the dog, but he had a straw in his mouth, and I couldn't understand one word he was saying. So I said excuse me, I am deaf. You'll have to take the straw out of your mouth! And he was shocked - but he did take the straw out of his mouth, and we were able to speak to each other, and I let him pet the dog. Just yesterday, when I was at the airport, the security guy was asking me a few questions, and they were just normal questions, but he was not speaking clearly, and he wasn't looking at me when he spoke, so I didn't understand. Another man in the line heard the whole thing and he turned to the security guard and said She doesn't understand English. And that was very odd, and a little funny, but I know why he said it, and he was the one who didn't understand - but it didn't matter, and I let it go. It's not my goal to fight everyone and make sure that everyone knows I'm deaf. My goal is to do the best I can with communication strategies that allow me to participate and to help other people communicate as best they are able by maximally using the tools and strategies available.

AO/Beck: Heather, again, it's an honor to meet with you. You are truly an inspiration. I know so many people are following your story, and I'm very glad to have the opportunity to focus on your hearing aid, because that has been such an important part of the story regarding how you got this far!

HWM: Yes, that's true Doug. I really have done well with my hearing aid, and I am grateful for all the sounds I have heard.

AO/Beck: Thanks again for your time, and I believe we'll meet for our final segment in late fall to see how things are going with the new hearing aid and the new cochlear implant?

HWM: Yes, I'll see you then, and I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you at that time.

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Heather Whitestone McCallum

Miss America 1995