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BACKLASH FROM DEAF MADE IT TOUGH ON MISS AMERICA

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For Heather Whitestone, winning the Miss America pageant was the easy part. Deciding not to quit was the challenge.

Whitestone, who is deaf, faced a backlash from other deaf people when she refused to constantly use sign language.She says the criticism was hard to take, but she decided to persevere.

"God said, `Please hold on,' " said Whitestone, 22, who was born with hearing but lost it from an infection when she was 18 months old.

In her yearlong reign as Miss America, Whitestone has made two White House visits, worked on the federal law for people with disabilities and signed the National Anthem while Kathie Lee Gifford sang it before the Super Bowl.

She's now preparing to return to Atlantic City, N.J., where she'll hand over the crown to Miss America 1996.