Feeling The Music With Deaf 'America's Got Talent' Finalist Mandy Harvey

Sep 19, 2017
Originally published on September 20, 2017 9:58 am

When you see and hear a performance by Mandy Harvey, one of the final ten contestants in the latest round of America's Got Talent, the first thing you notice is her voice. Look down at her feet, though, and you might also notice she's not wearing shoes.

"[It's] so you can feel things better when you're standing on the stage," Harvey says. "You can feel the drums, and you can feel the bass. So, being able to feel the music through the floor, it makes me feel like I'm a part of the band and not just the only person in the room who doesn't really understand what's going on."

This is because Harvey is deaf. The 29-year-old singer-songwriter from Cincinnati, Ohio, was born with near-perfect pitch. But she was also born with a deformity in her ears that made it difficult to hear — but not impossible, thanks to the use of lip reading and hearing aids.

But as the years passed, the hearing aids stopped working.

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"I didn't wake up one day and just couldn't hear," she says. "I woke up one day and realized I was having difficulty, and that I had overcompensated by lip reading, so that I didn't really understand how bad it was."

That was a decade ago. Harvey had just started her freshman year as a music major at Colorado State University. By the end of the school year, all of her residual hearing was gone — along with her dreams of becoming a choral director. She dropped out of school and fell into a depression.

One day, her father, Joe, suggested they play a song together on the guitar like they used to. She was game.

Then, he suggested they learn a new song — and that she sing.

"I expected it to be utter crap," Harvey laughs. "I ended up being accurate with my notes. That kind of was a door open for me."

And that door was one that unexpectedly led her to the stage.

"I used to hate performing. [I had] such anxiety," she says. "I would throw up or blackout. It was horrible."

But Harvey says that losing her hearing actually helped her get over that fear. Now, she has hundreds of shows to her name and four albums, including a new one that will be released later this year. She has gotten so good at performing that sometimes, the audience wonders if she's really deaf.

That questioning of Harvey's disability is something that Wayne Connell can relate to. Connell is the founder of Invisible Disabilities, a Denver nonprofit that aims to educate people on invisible disabilities and connect those who have them. His wife, Sherri, has multiple sclerosis.

"We've created an idea [of] how people are supposed to look when they're broken," Connell says, "and so when you don't fit that imaginary mold, then it's a trick, or you're a liar — or you're not really broken, so you shouldn't be doing certain things."

Like sing, or hold a conversation; or, in Sherri's case, park in certain places.

"We would park in disabled parking," Connell says, "and people would scream at her because she was not in a wheelchair."

Connell says that because of the wide range of invisible disabilities, it's impossible to know exactly how many people are dealing with them. Harvey, who has been a voice for Invisible Disabilities for years, says that dealing with her disability every day can sometimes feel like a battle. "There are days when I lose," she says, "and I'm depressed and I can't get out of bed."

But Harvey is now on her biggest stage ever – national television. And she wants to be judged on her voice and her songs, not her backstory.

"Not that I'm hiding my disability or whatever you would call it," she says. "I don't find it to be really a disability. It's just I do things differently and I want people to appreciate music for what it is, and not because of a story. I'm not a story; I'm a person, and my passion is music. And I want your passion to be my music – so, judge me on my music."

On Sept. 20, during the finale for America's Got Talent, that's what voters will have to do.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the contestants in the final round of "America's Got Talent" tonight is battling more than the pressure and nerves that come with competing on national TV. Singer Mandy Harvey is deaf. Stacy Nick of member station KUNC has her story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANDY HARVEY SONG, "TRY")

STACY NICK, BYLINE: When you see and hear Mandy Harvey perform, you notice her voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY")

MANDY HARVEY: (Singing) I don't feel the way I used to. The sky is gray much more than it is blue. But I know one day I'll get through.

NICK: But if you look down, you might notice she's not wearing shoes.

HARVEY: So you can feel things better. When you're standing on the stage, you can feel the drums, and you can feel the bass. So being able to feel the music through the floor - it makes me feel like I'm a part of the band and not just the only person in the room who doesn't really understand what's going on.

NICK: Harvey was born with near-perfect pitch, but she was also born with a deformity in her ears that made hearing difficult but not impossible with the use of lip reading and hearing aids. But eventually the hearing aids stopped working.

HARVEY: I didn't wake up one day and just couldn't hear. I woke up one day and realized I was having difficulty and that I'd overcompensated by lip reading so that I didn't really understand how bad it was.

NICK: That was a decade ago. Harvey had just started her freshman year as a music major at Colorado State University. By the end of the school year, all of her residual hearing was gone along with her dreams of becoming a choral director. She dropped out of school and fell into a depression. When her father, Joe, suggested they play a song together on the guitar like they used to, she was game. Then he suggested they learn a new song and that she sing.

HARVEY: I expected it to be utter crap, and I ended up being accurate with my notes still. And that kind of was a door open for me.

NICK: One that unexpectedly led her to the stage.

HARVEY: I used to hate performing - such anxiety, would throw up or black out. It was horrible.

NICK: Losing her hearing actually helped her get over that fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANDY HARVEY SONG, "DON'T THINK TWICE IT'S ALL RIGHT")

HARVEY: Yeah, this is a great song. It's one of the first songs that I learned on the guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T THINK TWICE IT'S ALL RIGHT")

HARVEY: (Singing) Well, there ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe. If you don't know by now, no, there ain't no use. Sit and wonder why. It'll never do somehow.

NICK: Now she has hundreds of shows to her name and four albums, including a new one out later this year. She's gotten so good at performing that sometimes the audience wonders if she's really deaf.

HARVEY: We've created an idea of how people are supposed to look when they're broken. And so when you don't fit that imaginary mold, then it's a trick. Or you're a liar, or you're not really broken, so you shouldn't be doing certain things.

NICK: Like sing or hold a conversation.

WAYNE CONNELL: We oftentimes look at people, and we make a decision based on what we can see.

NICK: That's Wayne Connell. He founded the Denver nonprofit Invisible Disabilities after dealing with a similar situation with his wife, Sherri. She has multiple sclerosis.

CONNELL: We would park in disabled parking, and people would scream at her because she was not in a wheelchair.

NICK: Connell says because of the wide range, it's impossible to know exactly how many people are dealing with invisible disabilities. Harvey's been a voice for the program for years and says dealing with her disability every day can sometimes feel like a battle.

HARVEY: And there are days when I lose and I'm depressed and I can't get out of bed.

NICK: But Mandy Harvey is now on her biggest stage ever - national television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S GOT TALENT")

SIMON COWELL: And Mandy, what are you going to sing?

HARVEY: I'm going to sing a song that I wrote called "Try."

(CHEERING)

COWELL: OK. Can you tell me what it's about?

HARVEY: After I lost my hearing, I gave up. But I want to do more with my life than just give up. So...

COWELL: Good for you.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

NICK: And she wants to be judged on her voice and her songs, not her backstory.

HARVEY: Not that I'm hiding my disability or whatever you would call it. I don't find it to be really a disability. It's just a - I do things differently. And I want people to appreciate music for what it is and not because of a story, you know? I'm not a story. I'm a person. And my passion is music, and I want your passion to be my music. So judge me on my music.

NICK: And that's what "America's Got Talent" voters will have to do. For NPR News, I'm Stacy Nick in Greeley, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY")

HARVEY: (Singing) If I would try, if I would try... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.