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HEATHER TAKES CHARGE IN A FLASH

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The first deaf Miss America got a taste of the difficult task ahead of her Sunday.

Heather Whitestone, a plucky 21-year-old collegian from Birmingham, Ala., told photographers to stop shooting pictures as she tried to read a reporter's lips on her first full day wearing the crown."You keep flashing. You make it hard for me to see his lips. Can you hold on for a minute?" she asked.

Later, she turned the tables on a reporter: "Let me know what you don't understand," she said when he look puzzled at an answer she'd given.

The news conference was just the first of many for Whitestone. Miss America usually travels about 20,000 miles a month for speaking engagements, presentations and other appearances.

Whitestone, who became deaf at age 11/2 after a reaction to a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus shot, has 5 percent hearing in her left ear.

A junior at Jacksonville State University, she reads lips, uses a hearing aid and knows sign language. But she said exclusive use of sign language limits what the hearing impaired can achieve.

Whitestone needed six years of speech therapy to learn how to say her last name.

"The most handicapped (person) in the world is a negative thinker," said Whitestone, adding that her mother told her as a child that the last four letters of "American" spell "i can."

Her platform centers on telling young people - not only those with disabilities - that anything is possible. She said Sunday she would try to spread that message during her reign as the first disabled Miss America.

The disability didn't trip her up in her 21/2-minute ballet routine Saturday night: In a soaring performance that brought tears to the eyes of many people in the Atlantic City Convention Center, White-stone danced to "Via Dolorosa" - even though she could only feel its vibrations.

She counted beats in her head, and synchronized her dance moves to reflect changes in pitch. She won the preliminary talent and swimsuit competitions.

In the audience was Samantha Braidi, 6, of Vineland, a deaf ballerina who carried a "Miss Alabama" sign that pictured a man using sign language to say "Deaf Like Me."

"There's no limitations now," said her mother, Debbie Braidi. "When the going gets tough, you just look at Miss America and say, `Hey, SHE can do it."'

That's the message heard by advocates for the hearing impaired, too.

"It'll be a shot in the arm for deaf children everywhere," said David Updegraff, superintendent of St. Mary's School for the Deaf in Buffalo, N.Y.

But it won't be easy for Whitestone, said Jayne Bray, chairwoman of the Miss America Pageant board.

"Maybe she won't be able to give a speech as long as a normal Miss America might give. Maybe we are all going to have to go out and learn a little bit of sign language to help her out, which would be wonderful," Bray said.

Updegraff said regional dialects and new people will pose problems for Whitestone.

"For people who rely on lip reading, it's very difficult to acclimate oneself to the shape of speech from different people every day, especially (people) with regional accents," he said.