Losing Her Hearing Hasn't Stopped Jazz Singer Mandy Harvey

May 9, 2016

Standing next to a piano with her ukulele, singer Mandy Harvey is performing for a private party in Greenwood Village. If you look down, you might notice she’s not wearing shoes…

“You can feel things better when you’re standing on the stage,” Harvey said. “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.”

So why footwear free? Harvey, who splits her time between Colorado and Florida, can’t hear the band. Or herself. She’s deaf.

She wasn’t born deaf -- quite the contrary -- she was born with near perfect pitch.

“I had hearing issues my entire life,” Harvey said. “I was born with deformed Eustachian tubes. So I’ve had tubes in, tubes out, tubes in, tubes out. Lots of ear infections – ear infections that would eat through my eardrum tissue. Sections of time where my eardrums would stop vibrating... I’ve been lip reading a long time with and without sound. But it was all manageable.”

Until it wasn’t.

Maintaining visual contact with band members is key to keeping her place in a song, Harvey said.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Harvey had just started her freshman year as a music major at Colorado State University when she realized that she had gotten so good at lip-reading, she hadn’t realized how much of her hearing she had been losing. 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.

“You can feel it resonating in your chest,” Harvey said. “You know it’s making sound and that had become enough for me.”

When he suggested they learn a new song and that she sing, it seemed a stretch. Still, she gave it a try for him - using her muscle memory from a lifetime of singing and a tuner on her phone so that she could find middle C - it ended up not bad.

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

One that unexpectedly led her to the stage.

“I used to hate performing; such anxiety,” she said. “I would throw up or blackout. It was horrible.”

Losing her hearing actually helped her get over that fear.

“I never really felt sure about (my voice) until I lost my hearing and stopped doubting myself,” she said. “I can’t judge myself anymore. I can’t say, ‘hey, you could have done that better’ or, ‘oh my gosh, there’s a scary note – it’s really high – it’s coming up.’ Now it’s just a note. If I hit it, I hit it. If I don’t hit it - meh.”

Now she has hundreds of performances to her name, along with four albums, including a new one coming out this summer. She’s so good, sometimes the audience wonders if she’s really deaf.

“We’ve created an idea 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,” Harvey said. “Or you’re not really broken so you shouldn’t be doing certain things.”

Like sing… or hold a conversation.

“And I sound so quote unquote normal,” Harvey said.

Remember, she hasn’t always been deaf. To maintain her vocal muscle memory she does frequent speech therapy.

Mandy uses a tuning app on her phone to help her before a concert.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Some members of the deaf community don’t like the fact that Harvey speaks and sings. They believe it promotes ‘oralism.’ The controversial teaching method for deaf children bans the use of sign language, focusing solely on verbal communication.

“You know, we’re all living here together, we’re all trying to communicate however best we feel we should,” Harvey said. “So if your way of communication is different than mine, it’s different. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t mean one’s better or worse.”

Traveling or when in public, Harvey often uses sign language and writes notes to communicate, despite her lip-reading skills. It’s just easier, she said to avoid confusion.

“Flight attendants will sometimes have me sit right in one of the handicap seats and people see me, not with casts and not with a clear disability and they think that I’m rude and I’m just taking a handicap seat,” she said. “I’ve had things thrown at me. I’ve had people swear at me, I’ve had people give me horrible dirty looks.”

It’s a problem Wayne Connell can relate to.

“We often times look at people and we make a decision based on what we can see,” said Connell, President and CEO of Invisible Disabilities.

In 1996, he founded the Denver nonprofit with his wife Sherri, who has Multiple Sclerosis.

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

Because of the wide range of illnesses and disabilities that fall under the category of ‘invisible,’ it’s impossible to note exactly how many people are dealing with them, he said. An estimated 50 percent of Americans are dealing with some type of chronic illness.

Harvey has been a voice for Invisible Disabilities for years, singing at functions and speaking about her own challenges. She’s even writing a book, hoping to help others by sharing her story.

“It’s difficult because this scar and this trauma is very real to me… and I battle it every day,” she said. “And I’m continuing to battle it every day. And there are days when I lose, and I’m depressed and I can’t get out of bed.”

More often than not she does get out of bed, and when she does, usually, it’s singing.

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series on people with disabilities and access to the arts. If there's a story you'd like to see us cover, contact Stacy Nick at (970) 350-0817 or stacy.nick@kunc.org