Jayna Altman had no intention of running for Miss International 2008 until someone suggested it to her. Then she looked into the pageant, liked what it stood for, and added it to her very long to-do list. Winning seemed a long shot, until the moment she felt the crown placed upon her head. Born severely premature and profoundly deaf, Altman has made her life a testament to what she can do. Her Abilities First program raises awareness of disabilities and advocates for a world where everyone can reach their full potential. Recently Altman, her childhood friend, Leah Demeter, and ABILITY’s Chet Cooper met up in a Fountain Valley, CA, restaurant.
Cooper: Where did you two meet?
Altman: We met when Karen Rothwell-Vivian, an auditory-verbal therapist, developed a support group. There were six of us: three girls and three boys in the group, growing up together. The group was based in Tustin.
Demeter: Karen, who was our speech therapist, encouraged us to socialize and talk. She felt that socializing was an important part of therapy.
Altman: It was really neat having the support group as a base growing up; it was really influential and supportive. Over the years, I’ve noticed in working with kids who have hearing loss that some have never met anyone like themselves; they feel outcast, isolated or alone. When you meet someone else with hearing loss, you feel more accepting of who you are.
Demeter: Yes. It’s very difficult for me to be in the normal world with hearing loss, because I feel like I’m locked out of a lot of conversations. At a conference, for instance, if there’s a group of people all talking, I feel left out. So it’s nice to have somebody who can relate to all the challenges.
Cooper: You never learned sign language?
Altman: I learned it in college.
Cooper: What was your major in college?
Altman: I got a bachelor’s in communication from the University of San Diego, and I graduated with honors and distinction.
Cooper: And distinction?
Altman: To graduate with distinction, you have to be accepted into the honors program. On top of that, you have to do a PhD-level dissertation on a topic within communications. For my dissertation, I researched the communication levels between auditory verbal therapy, oral therapy, and total communication with children who received cochlear implants at the same age and had the same number of years in therapy. I compared the various communication levels based on age of implantation, years of therapy, how aggressive the therapy was, speech scores, language scores, and so forth, to determine how successful each of the modes of speech therapy were. There were so many different aspects to it, and I am glad I facilitated that research.
Cooper: How did you get involved in the Miss International pageant?
Altman: There was a director in the program who asked me to consider it about a year ago. So I took a look at it and thought, “Sure, why not?” I saw it as a hobby at first, but also a great way to be able to communicate with others regarding acceptance of disabilities. I believe each individual in life has different abilities; it’s just that some abilities, or what others view as disabilities, are more apparent than others. Some view hearing loss as debilitating, but it really isn’t. The most debilitating thing to have is a negative attitude, or to believe that we can’t do something no matter what we have going for us in life; that attitude can stop us from achieving our goals.
The Miss International organization provides a global platform to communicate that message through both my programs: Abilities First and I CAN: Inspiring Confidence in our Abilities Now. Both programs focus on early identification, education and knowledge, in addition to utilizing surrounding support services and a positive attitude to provide a roadmap for success in overcoming physical, mental and medical diagnoses.
I represented my home state as Miss Missouri at the pageant, which was a whirlwind of different events, different activities, public speaking and conferences. On top of the appearances, I was prepping for the national pageant in July 2008.
I was so excited to make top 10 at the national competition. I can’t say that I really planned for any success at Miss International. They have what’s called an onstage interview portion where you have to wear an interview suit onstage. I didn’t bring a suit with me because I didn’t think I was going to make top 10. So Miss New Jersey actually—
Cooper: New Jersey!
Altman: Yes, New Jersey! Interesting enough, Miss New Jersey, Ashli Fivehouse, pulled me aside and said, “You’re going to be in the top 10.” I said, “No, no, I’m not. I can’t. I don’t have an onstage interview outfit.” She smiled at me and said, “You’re going to get called, and when you do, you can use mine.”
Cooper: Was it a bathing suit?
Altman: (laughs) No. So I said, “OK, but I think you’re going to make top 10. You have the perfect wardrobe, you’re gorgeous, you’re everything one would imagine a beauty pageant queen to be.” And she responded encouragingly, “No, no, no. You’re going to make it.” I was the second one called up in Top 10. I almost passed out, literally. I turned around to look at her, she gives me the thumbs up, and says, “Go get it.” So I had permission to wear her outfit; I didn’t even know what it looked like! It was just one of those cosmic events and you do it. It was a cute pink outfit. It looked perfect!
For my onstage interview they asked me, “As far as the educational system, do you think that federal grants should be used for individuals with disabilities?” I said something along the lines of “Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that federal grants should be used to provide an appropriate education for individuals with disabilities. Congress has committed to providing at least 30 percent of the funds for it, and has yet to fully meet that obligation. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the additional assistance I received in the school system.” The question totally threw me for a loop, because I wasn’t expecting a political question.
Cooper: Still, you had an opinion to share!
Altman: Of course I had an opinion, because advocating for disabilities is my life, and I’ve lived with hearing loss since I was a child.
Cooper: So you were cheating?
Altman: (laughs) I don’t know if I would necessarily call it “cheating!” The next segment was fashion modeling, and my heel ended up getting caught in my dress. I’m hopping as I’m going on stage, trying to pull my dress out my heel. It was funny.
Cooper: I hate it when that happens!
Altman: (laughs) It was interesting. All I could do was laugh the entire time I was on stage. After all, what are you going to do? Again, I was just happy that I made the top 10, and my thoughts were, “This is awesome; this is cool.” After all the stages of competition were complete, we arrive to the crowning… the fourth runner up is called, who was Miss Oklahoma, then third runner up was Miss Oregon, and then the second runner up…. I thought if I was going to get anything it would be second runner up. However, they called Miss Arkansas as the second runner up.
Cooper: Don’t keep me in suspense any longer. Who won?
Altman: I’m getting there. So I think, “It’s going to be California; this is awesome!” Not that I’m negative; I’m trying to be realistic and not get my hopes up. My eyes are closed and I’m praying. I didn’t hear them call me. The girl next to me grabs me and starts shaking me, and my reaction is, “Oh, yay, who won?” And she said, “You did!” It was mind-numbing.
Cooper: Do you travel as Miss International?
Altman: Yes, year-round to the states and some international travel, working with a lot of charities whose focus is awareness of disabilities and serving individuals with various disabilities. I also do a lot of public speaking on educating the public on awareness of disabilities. I serve as a spokesperson for both the Special Olympics and Ability Beyond Disability. Both organizations serve individuals with a variety of disabilities, primarily intellectual or cognitive disabilities.
Cooper: Do you have a cochlear implant?
Altman: No. I have hearing aids. I wear either my behind-the-ear DaVinci PxPs or the new in-the-canal, Destiny 1200, both fitted by Starkey. I’m a candidate for a cochlear implant, but I decided against it for the time being.
Cooper: I see that you have a Blackberry.
Altman: Yes, I do. I call it my “Crackberry.”
Cooper: So because of the Blackberry you can get email quickly. Do you do email more than you send text messages?
Altman: A combination of both. Nowadays with the technology, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have a hearing loss. Everybody seems to be into email and texting, rather than picking up the phone and calling someone.
Cooper: Why aren’t you wearing your crown?
Altman: It’s getting fixed.
Cooper: You wore it out?
Altman: (laughs) No, I was signing the national anthem for a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. It was for the 15th anniversary of Deaf Awareness in Missouri. I had been wearing the crown but had taken it off, when an excited baseball fan accidentally hit it and one of the pieces broke off.
Cooper: Why Missouri?
Altman: I was accepted into its Washington University School of Medicine for my doctorate in audiology. Cooper: Have you visited Missouri’s caves?
Altman: Yes, they have a lot of them, like the Jesse James caves. Cooper: Was it his hide out? Altman: I just know that they’re called the Jesse James caves. They are really cool.
Cooper: Most of them are underground?
Altman: (laughs) Yes, and we’ve got the Arch.
Cooper: Have you been in the Arch?
Altman: I love the Arch!
Cooper: I don’t like heights, and I’m a little claustrophobic, but going in there was cool.
Altman: Wasn’t it creepy when you go up the little elevator to the top of the Arch and it’s creaking the entire way?
Cooper: It was strange. I thought, I can’t believe they’re letting us do this! And then we’re looking straight down.
Altman: But on a clear day you can see so far out.
Demeter: What are you doing now, Jayna? I can’t keep up with you with your busy schedule.
Altman: I’m real excited because we have the World Winter Games for the Special Olympics in Boise, Idaho in February. They have a Global Youth Summit conference, which is aimed at educating youth on different kinds of disability, especially cognitive/intellectual disabilities. It focuses on how we’re going to transform the world; how our youth can play a central role in the worldwide community to change the perception of cognitive disabilities; and, how we can begin to create a sense of inclusion.
Demeter: Can we see your goal sheet?
Cooper: What is a goal sheet?
Altman: Here’s my little goal bag with “the big plan.” Last year I wrote out my 2008 goals, in terms of what I want to accomplish that year. I still have to do my 2009 goals.
Cooper: Number one, meet Chet Cooper.
Altman: Meet Chet Cooper, whoo-hoo! (laughs) I write out my big goals, and then I write out smaller goals underneath it to organize how I am going to accomplish the bigger goal. I carry my goal sheet with me, so I’m always reminded of what I want to accomplish that year. Demeter: I admire that because it shows you’re persistent and determined.
Cooper: [looks at sheet] Which of these things have you done?
Altman: I auditioned for the Rams Cheerleaders, but I didn’t audition for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. I didn’t make the 2008 squad, but I was one of the finalists.
Then my fitness competition goal, which I did not complete this year, but it’s going to transition into one of my 2009 goals. My last goal was to win Miss International 2008.
There are five different miniature goals related to the larger goal, one of which was to obtain major sponsors.
Cooper: Did you? Who’d you get?
Altman: I did. One of my major sponsors is Masimo Corporation, which is a producer of medical equipment that measures hemoglobin oxygen. The equipment detects the heart rate and lung oxygen for infants in hospitals. They’re based in Irvine.
Cooper: Why would they sponsor you?
Altman: I was born three months premature, and as a result my lungs actually collapsed several times. I had 14 pneumothoraxes because of the low amount of oxygen going through my lungs. At the time I was born, most premature babies could barely survive one or two. Today, with their equipment, hospitals can monitor the oxygen rate for infants to prevent blowouts and collapsed lungs.
Cooper: Was hearing loss part of your premature birth?
Altman: My hearing loss was not directly a result of my premature birth, but a result of the ototoxic medications that I was given to stay alive. With my pre-maturity, my lungs and heart were both underdeveloped, and I had to have open-heart surgery at six-weeks old to correct the deficit. Also, I was born with blood toxicity, so I had two complete transfusions, and there were a number of other medical complications that occurred as well. I think they said I went without oxygen eight different times, so they were really surprised when I left the hospital without cognitive issues.
Cooper: Do you have any scars?
Altman: [Shows scars on her wrists] I do. I’m proud to say I have a number of scars, and I really like them. They’re really awesome. I grew up a tomboy, so needless to say—
Cooper: So the scars weren’t from the surgery?
Altman: No, the scars were from the surgery. I have a really big scar down my back from the open-heart surgery, and I have various scars on my chest and ribs from the pneumothoraxes. But growing up a tomboy, it really helped to have scars. I was immediately accepted by boys who thought scars were cool.
Demeter: What other sponsors do you have right now?
Altman: Fleming’s Steak House.
Cooper: Are they the ones who say the more steak you eat the better your heart?
Altman: (laughs) They’re one of my sponsors. And then Cache, the clothing company.
Altman: Once I obtained sponsors, I worked to develop and design my own website to showcase the difference I was making on my community, especially with my travel blog to demonstrate the different ways that I was spreading the message. I had an idea of what I wanted, and I went for it. As for my other goals, I wanted to read more finance and audiology books. I love to learn!
Cooper: (looking at the goal sheet) That’s one side, what’s on the back?
Altman: More goals.
Cooper: What percentage of your goals did you accomplish?
Altman: On this list, about 90 percent.
Cooper: Did you see the movie The Bucket List?
Altman: I loved that movie.
Cooper: When you talked about sponsors, did you ever think about sponsors of things you use now, like your hearing device?
Altman: Well, I was with Starkey for the ‘So the World May Hear’ campaign. As far as the hearing aid, they’ve provided me hearing aids free of charge. I get to test out the Destiny 1200, which was released last year, and I was fitted with them this past June. It is the first in-thecanal hearing aid that has enough power for profound hearing losses. Most of the time when you have profound loss, you can only wear a behind-the-ear hearing aid, because it’s the only thing that can deliver the amount of power you need to be able to pick up surrounding sounds, especially when you have a dB loss of 120 dB. But Bill Austin had higher aspirations, and he was able to formulate and put together an in-the-canal hearing aid that has enough power to be able to amplify sounds for such a hearing loss.
Cooper: How often do you have to charge it?
Altman: I only use batteries. One lasts about a week.
Cooper: They’re not rechargeable?
Altman: No. I have to buy them.
Demeter: Have you ever thought about getting a hearing dog?
Altman: Actually, no. I thought about getting a dog, but not a hearing dog. [to Leah] Have you thought about it?
Demeter: Yeah. Like, if the fire alarm goes off, a dog will be there to alert me.
Altman: Oh, my God, I have a funny story for you! The night that I won Miss International, my roommate was Miss Oregon, Courtney Caron, and she was a really loud, direct, black-and-white honest, yet down-to-earth awesome girl. It was great rooming with her because she yelled at me the entire time, so I always could hear her. She was so direct that I never had to guess what she was saying or thinking.
The night I got crowned, we had so many after-crowning events that I got to bed at two in the morning. My hearing aids are out; my contacts are out. So 30 minutes after I go to bed, the fire alarm gets pulled, and my roommate doesn’t know how to communicate with me to tell me that there was a fire. She was jumping up and down. I can’t see her, I can’t hear her. She’s trying to tell me there’s a fire. She’s yanking me out of the bed, dragging me down the hall, and I’m wondering, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” and she’s trying to scream at me that the fire alarm went off. It was pretty hilarious.
Demeter: Wow! How did you figure it out?
Altman: When I saw a bunch of people running outside and the fire trucks rushing up with their lights flashing, I put the pieces together.
Demeter: Did you take your hearing aids?
Altman: Yes, I grabbed them. If I’m going to run out of a burning building, what do I take with me? My hearing aids.
Demeter: So a hearing dog would help you?
Altman: Or roommates. I always live with roommates.
Demeter: But you said she didn’t know how to communicate. A dog would know.
Altman: Yes, a dog would. In fact, I was recently asked to serve as Honorary Chair for the Tacky Ball, an annual fundraiser for Support Dogs, Inc., a non-profit organization that pairs service dogs to individuals with disabilities. It’s amazing to see the training program for these animals.
I do have to say, I was amused by the oddity of Courtney jumping up and down trying to find some way to yell at me, “Fire!” when I couldn’t hear her and couldn’t see her. It was one of my top 10 memorable moments of last year.
Cooper: So during the daytime, you can hear things? It’s only when you take your hearing aids off that you’re at risk for something like that?
Altman: That’s correct. When I take out my hearing aids, I can’t hear very much, maybe a foghorn.
Cooper: Only if you’re near the beach.
Altman: (laughs) It was kind of interesting. I joked around the other day, “I feel like a modern-day Helen Keller. I can’t see and I can’t hear!”
Demeter: What kind of degree of hearing loss do you have?
Altman: I’m at 120 dB range. I think I have a “left corner” audiogram just like you [ to Leah].
Demeter: Off the charts?
Altman: I think you’re more off the charts than I am.
Demeter: You do have some hearing—
Altman: Just in the low frequencies. When they do the charts at 500 Hz and 1,000 Hz, I’m at 90 dB at 500 and at 100 dB at 1,000, and then no response after that.
Demeter: But the hearing aids really help? I couldn’t wear a hearing aid because there’s no hearing.
Altman: Well I would do better with a cochlear implant. They’ve tested me for it. But the whole thing does not sit well with me. I’m proud that you got it done, but I could never do it. And they had to shave your head; I remember you hated that!
Demeter: It’s no big deal. They only shave a little part. It’s not that big a deal. But if your hearing gets worse, then it’s something you might want to consider.
Altman: If my hearing gets worse, I have that option.
Demeter: You might be a good candidate for that.
Cooper: How does it work with the phone system?
Altman: I have a program on my hearing aid that I switch over to when I answer the phone. It cuts out all the background noises, so just the speaker on the other end of the phone is amplified.
Cooper: Do the people on the other end know that you have a hearing issue?
Altman: Most individuals that I talk to know that I have hearing loss and accommodate me on the phone. If there’s someone that I haven’t spoken to who doesn’t know that I have hearing loss, I’m very direct in saying please bear with me if I say What? I make light of it. Sometimes I’ll joke around about it. Usually people don’t mind when you joke about it, because it lets them know that you’re comfortable with it, so they can be comfortable with it. I always think that I have the best of both worlds, because I can turn my ears on and off. Not everybody has that capability. We have that. When we don’t want to listen to anything, all we have to do is take our hearing aids out or turn our cochlear implants off. It’s great, especially when you’re trying to sleep in on the weekend. I can remember when I was younger when my father was woken up by the lawn mower on Saturday mornings, and I would ask, “What lawn mower?”
Demeter: Do you use your phone at work?
Demeter: If you apply for a job, do they call you and talk to you over the phone? You never have trouble?
Altman: No… well, sometimes.
Demeter: Did you practice on the phone?
Altman: Karen, our speech therapist, made us practice. I remember that after some of the lessons she did with us, I would go home in tears because I was so tired. She really pushed us as students to do better every single time. Being mediocre wasn’t an option. She wanted us to do well. She was the best teacher you could have. It wasn’t just, “Let’s get through the lesson, I’m here to teach you how to talk.” Her motivation was, “You’re going to get it, and you’re going to be awesome at it.”
Demeter: We were lucky to have the auditory-verbal training and such a good therapist to push us.
Altman: Karen really taught us about determination, that if you don’t get it the first time, try, try, try again.
Demeter: Yeah, that’s why she always did repetition. When you finally get the word, everybody’s so proud of you. You feel like you’ve done it by yourself. You’re able to talk to people; people understand you. It’s a very nice feeling to have.
Altman: Do you remember those tapes? (Jayna asks Leah, and then looks at Chet:) It’s interesting, because most people learn how to block and filter out noise and talk to someone in a noisy environment, but we have to learn how to do that.
Leah, do you remember the tapes she used to play that had all the noise in the background? And then they would tell the story, and we would have to tell her the story? I hated that!
Altman: You had to focus in so hard to ignore all the background noise and listen to the story. Not only did you have to listen, but you had to remember it. (laughs)
Demeter: There was a lot of memorization.
Altman: It was hard. As much as I hated it at that time, looking back on it, I’m glad I had that lesson, because it really helped me in talking on the phone. I like to think that I may have a hearing loss, but I can listen.
Demeter: I think that’s true.
Cooper: And that’s because of the class?
Altman: Because of the lessons. When you have hearing loss, you have to really listen and focus on the details and to understand things around you. Just because you can hear doesn’t mean you can listen.
Cooper: Did you learn how to read lips a little bit?
Demeter: I learned to read lips.
Altman: Well everyone subconsciously knows how to read lips. They did a study that showed that we all use lip reading to complement our auditory comprehension of language. But Karen would not let us use lip reading.
Demeter: She called it cheating.
Altman: She always covered her mouth when she was talking with us. I was that obnoxious kid who would pull her hand from her mouth. (laughs)
Cooper: What was the purpose of her not wanting you to read lips?
Altman: To focus on our auditory skills. As I mentioned, we may be deaf, but trust me, we have superior listening skills.
Cooper: So everyone in the class had some hearing device?
Altman: That way, if you can’t read lips, if you can’t see someone’s mouth, you’re able to pick up on what they’re saying.