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Deaf teen tapping her way to fame

July 27, 2007

Disability doesn’t deter state’s Outstanding Teen American from competition

By Mary Niederberger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For the next few weeks, Elena LaQuatra, 15, will be spending a lot of time in a dance studio at the Center for Theater Arts in Mt. Lebanon spinning, twirling and tapping like crazy as she prepares for her big day.

Elena was recently named Pennsylvania’s Outstanding Teen America when she won the Miss Pennsylvania Scholarship Pageant held in Nazareth, Pa. She’s now preparing for the national competition, Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant, which will be held Aug. 7-11 in Orlando, Fla.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Elena LaQuatra, recently named Pennsylvania Outstanding Teen American, tap dances at the Center for Theater Arts.

Her talent for the competition is tap dancing and that’s what she’ll be busy practicing at the center where she takes lessons.

But she’s hoping to make a bigger impression in the platform segment of the competition. Elena is profoundly deaf and uses a cochlear implant to hear. Her platform is “Oral Deaf Education … Finding Your Voice.”

Through that platform she advocates the use of cochlear implants for the deaf and appears regularly in front of audiences to talk about her experience in using them. In February she attended a convention sponsored by Cochlear America, a firm that produces cochlear implants, and spoke to other users and those considering the implants about her experience.

She also speaks and performs at the DePaul School for Hearing and Speech, where she attended from preschool to second grade.

“Your platform is what you raise support and money for and this is what I care about. I think everyone who is deaf should be able to hear and speak,” Elena said.

Elena lost her hearing to meningitis in 1996 when she was 4. Her father, Paul, said a cold turned to meningitis overnight and Elena ended up in the hospital. Almost from the start, her parents could tell her hearing was affected. Tests later showed she was profoundly deaf, but doctors told her family about what was then a relatively new technology known as the cochlear implant that could restore her hearing.

There were complications with her first implant, which meant she did not hear for 10 months and the quality of her speech deteriorated. During that time, she taught herself to read lips.

The second implant was a success, and along with speech and various physical therapies, Elena eventually returned to normal.

Elena’s sense of balance was also upset when she lost her hearing. But the therapies restored that as well. Her father said he is still amazed each time he sees her twist and twirl as she dances across a stage.

From preschool until second grade, Elena attended DePaul Institute, which was located in the South Hills at the time. The school has since become DePaul School for Hearing and Speech and has moved to Shadyside. Paul LaQuatra said Elena quickly was able to get her speech back to normal levels because her speech patterns were established before she lost her hearing.

“What really impresses people is that with her cochlear implant she hears and speaks so well she has a way of deceiving people. If they don’t see her processor, they don’t know she is deaf,” he said.

She wears her processor over and behind her left ear. But when her hair is worn down, it’s not visible and she speaks as fluently as any other vibrant, bubbly teen.

In second grade Elena was mainstreamed into the Mt. Lebanon public schools, where she recently completed her freshman year of high school and is a member of the percussion ensemble, the dance company and was a dancer in the musical “Hello Dolly.”

And, she’s competed in the annual Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologues contest and won in 2005 for the best scene in grades 4-7, along with her friend Megan Hosking, for doing a scene with Juliet and the nurse from Romeo and Juliet.

Marc Field, executive director for the Center for Theater Arts, has known Elena since she was 3. He said even as a toddler, she didn’t let her disability slow her down.

“When she was sick and lost her hearing, it was never anything more than a minor inconvenience,” Mr. Field said. “It’s been an inspiration to have someone like her here.”

Mary Niederberger can be reached at mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07207/804281-55.stm

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  1. Maximilian
    July 27, 2007 at 10:54 am

    This raises interesting questions. Is a person who speaks and hears well deaf? If their natural disability is completely counteracted by technology, are they still disabled? This girl has become noteworthy because she is deaf and leading a normal life. Does she deserve this praise?

  2. Lillian
    July 28, 2007 at 5:01 am

    Whoever posted this comment is missing the point. This girl would be noteworthy whether she was deaf or not. All of the grls that win a state title (in this case under the Miss America organization) are noteworthy! But it is the adversity she has overcome and how she has turned it to somehing positive in helping others that is more noteworthy! And yes, of course she is still disabled. Is someone who has a prosthetic leg still disabled?

  3. Maximilian
    July 30, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    Hi Lillian. Its great that she’s such a fantastic tap dancer. She might very well be noteworthy without having become deaf. However, the article uses the adjective “deaf” to describe her most often, which makes it seem that is her predominantly noteworthy characteristic.

    I looked up the definitions of “adversity” and “disability” to make certain I understood what they mean.

    Adversity; adverse fortune or fate; a condition marked by misfortune, calamity, or distress

    Disability; lack of adequate power, strength, or physical or mental ability; incapacity.

    I don’t know this girl personally, but the article illustrates a picture that has her leading a normal life. Hearing and speaking normally. If they can’t see the cochlear implant under her hair, people can’t tell she’s deaf. She USED to be disabled, but that changed long before she became a tap dancer.

    I know a young girl who has had one leg since birth. She uses a prosthetic leg, and plays soccer. It doesn’t get in the way of her walking like any girl with two legs. She doesn’t consider herself disabled and no one who knows her would either.

    As far as helping others, all I see is cochlear companies exploiting a pretty young girl for a spokesperson. They’re using her to show deaf people how normal and awesome they could be if they got a cochlear implant instead of living full lives without the risk of a very invasive surgery. It didn’t even work for Elena after the first operation!

  4. Lillian
    August 6, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Hello Maximilian,

    First, I can’t help but smile about your definition of “disabled”..wish someone would let the US Government know…with all the able bodied people sucking off our government pretending to be disabled, it’s a wonder anyone actually wants to work for a living!

    Turning to Elena, I don’t know her personally either but she lives in our home town and I know several people that do know her. She attended an oral deaf school…learned to read lips and can carry on a full conversation without hearing! She advocates relentlessly for cochlear implants and oral deaf education. She goes back to her old deaf school frequently to inspire and encourage the children. She advocates of her own free will…no one is exploiting her. She is good friends with Heather Whitestone (the deaf Miss America) and they have aPP. I don’t know her personally, but she is one heck of an amazing girl! Her life is about helping others..

  5. Lillian
    August 6, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Hello Maximilian,

    First, I can’t help but smile about your definition of “disabled”..wish someone would let the US Government know…with all the able bodied people sucking off our government pretending to be disabled, it’s a wonder anyone actually wants to work for a living! I guess if you pull a muscle in your back, you can get disability, but if you are deaf or have one leg, you are perfectly “normal” because of medical technology and prosthetics!!

    Turning to Elena, I don’t know her personally either but she lives in our home town and I know several people that do know her. She attended an oral deaf school…learned to read lips and can carry on a full conversation without hearing! She advocates relentlessly for cochlear implants and oral deaf education. She goes back to her old deaf school frequently to inspire and encourage the children. She advocates of her own free will…no one is exploiting her. She is good friends with Heather Whitestone (the deaf Miss America) and they have appeared together all over the country. Elena does other community service work too. SHe was part of the small group of girls that led the protest against Abercrombie and Fitch for selling degrading T-shirts..they pulled the T-shirts after one week! She mentors disadvantaged and underprivileged youth. She organized and produced a benefit community talent show for a friend with leukemia. The story in the Post Gazette was intended to be a story about her winning the Miss PA Teen pageant, but she is humble and unselfish and probably asked that the story be written to emphasize her platform because she wants something positive for others to come out of her reign…she is not another selfish titleholder looking for stardom and bright lights. That’s what makes her amazing. Yes, she is beautiful and talented, but more importantly, she has a big heart and truly wants to inspire others.

    My two cents worth!

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