Heather Whitestone McCallum was the first disabled person to be crowned Miss America, but she doesn't think of herself as part of the deaf world or the hearing world.
"I'm really part of the real world, and I like it," she said during a visit yesterday to the Heuser Hearing Institute and Louisville Deaf Oral School.
McCallum, who lost her hearing when she was 18 months old as a result of meningitis, underwent cochlear implant surgery last year, allowing her to hear more out of her right ear. She spent more than an hour at the school, posing for photos with students and talking about her childhood and recent surgery.
McCallum, who became Miss America in September 1994, has written three books since then and continues to tour the country as a motivational speaker.
Yesterday much of her talk focused on her cochlear implant.
"It's not easy to hear new things," she said. "When you hear a new sound, it's very much like you're in a different country. You hear people talking, but you don't understand what they are saying."
McCallum said her doctor has told her it could take four to five years before she reaps the full benefits of the implant. Still, she is reading lips less often and has found she does not need to have people repeat themselves as much.
"I'm not 100 percent, but I'm doing a lot better," said McCallum, who still uses a hearing aid in her left ear. "I still have a long way to go before I will achieve my goals."
McCallum, 30, said new technology such as the implant will allow children born today with hearing loss to learn and develop their speech and reading faster than she did.
One of those children, Myah Meredith, 3, was in the audience with her mother and father, Doc and Kim, who traveled from Hodgenville.
Myah had cochlear implant surgery when she was a year old, soon after having her picture taken with McCallum and her mother in Lexington. The family brought the photo to the event yesterday in hopes of getting an autograph.
Kim Meredith said she and her husband knew nothing about deafness when their daughter was born. But after reading a book written by McCallum's mother, she was determined that her daughter would succeed.
"Since she's had the implant, it's a whole different thing. If you talk to her, you would not know that she is deaf. Her speech is clear," she said. "We're not worried at all now."
McCallum told the audience of parents, staff, students and others that she decided to undergo surgery after her oldest son started asking her questions about sounds he was hearing. Around the same time, the boy fell in the back yard while playing and she couldn't hear him crying.
"Not being there for him really scared me," McCallum said. "Hearing my children's voices and being able to communicate with them is the main reason I chose to get a cochlear implant."
Mona McCubbin, executive director of the Heuser Hearing Institute, said students and staff were "honored" that McCallum came to speak to them.
"From growing up deaf to overcoming major obstacles to being crowned Miss America, Heather is a role model to deaf and hard-of-hearing people everywhere," McCubbin said.
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