Despite having complete loss of hearing, Mandy Harvey sang her way to a fourth-place finish on the television show “America’s Got Talent” in 2017.
However, her journey to the spotlight wasn’t an easy one.
Harvey began progressively losing her hearing from the time she was born. When she was a child, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a disease that weakens the connective tissues of the body.
“There were moments when you stop understanding certain things, and so you go through the day, and you realize that you couldn’t actually hear certain things anymore, that they were figments of your imagination of what you thought you could hear,” Harvey said. “I’ll never forget the moment I realized I could no longer hear my zipper.”
In addition to hearing loss, EDS caused her to have several other complications including knee issues, which required surgery.
“I had about six or seven major procedures starting my senior year of high school through that first year of CSU, and I was on a lot of medications and under a lot of stress during that whole period,” she said.
Despite the deterioration of her hearing, Harvey wanted to pursue a career in music.
In fact, nearly 10 years before she wowed audiences on “America’s Got Talent,” Harvey was a music education student at Colorado State University. It was there she first noticed she could no longer hear.
“I was in a music theory class and I had my hearing aids on. I was waiting for the dictation test to start, which is when you listen to the piano and note rhythm for rhythm what’s happening. I was staring at my teacher waiting for the test; I just couldn’t do it,” Harvey told Healthline. “I was dropped from the class.”
Losing her ability to continue on with music was overwhelming for Harvey who had been in choir since she was four years old.
“Being dropped from that class in college meant I could no longer be a music major. I went into scrambling mode because I had another knee surgery coming up, and I didn’t even have time to be able to process it all,” she said.
After transferring to another class, Harvey was able to finish the semester, but then dropped out of CSU.
That’s when Harvey’s life took another rough turn.
One day she was hit by a bicyclist who couldn’t stop on ice. Although the bicyclist was shouting for Harvey to move, she couldn’t hear him.
“It was a very dark time for me. I was just trying to figure out life at a certain point and I just started working really hard to keep up. Once life started to settle down, that’s when I had enough time to really process what happened. And that’s when I started spiraling,” she said.
According to a study by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), more than 11 percent of people with hearing loss also had depression compared to only 5 percent of people who said they had excellent hearing.
“People with hearing loss may struggle in social settings or become embarrassed in social settings so they can start to isolate themselves from people, and we’re wired to have connections. That isolation can have a snowball effect, which can include depression and anxiety and other health ailments,” Nora Stewart, audiologist and chief vision officer for Entheos Audiology Cooperative, told Healthline.
These are statistics with which Harvey says she can relate. She began feeling depressed shortly after leaving CSU.
“There definitely were bouts of being depressed. After losing my hearing, [I was] scared and kind of went through the stages of grief that were very obvious. I was definitely bartering. And then [got] really angry and then really sad, but I just stayed in that sadness for a really long time, and didn’t think there would ever be acceptance,” she recalled.
She says she stopped talking to people, going outside, showering, and eating.
“I had to figure out everything again. Waking up with a different style alarm clock and learning sign language, and how to not be afraid of the dark if I fell asleep and the fire alarm went off and I couldn’t hear it,” Harvey said. “There are so many different things that preoccupy your mind.”
While she took antidepressants for about six months and received counseling, she says it was mostly time and the support of her family that got her through.
“The hardest thing is everybody wants you to be happy after five minutes of despair, and when your whole life changes, it’s not something that you can just accept and move on and be happy because everybody else is tired of you not being happy. You go through grief so that you can come out of it on the other side,” Harvey said.
To motivate herself to make healthy decisions, she made a list of small victories she made each day, such as walking out of the house for the first time.
“It was a really big day and it was hard, but it was a victory. And you just kind of start moving towards a different tomorrow by making one small choice that is different today,” she said.
Taking sign language classes also helped as well, she said.
“My sister took them with me, which was huge. You never really understand how much that means and how sad it is that most family members of people who are deaf don’t take the time to learn how to communicate with them,” Harvey said.
After losing all her hearing, Harvey set music aside for an entire year. Then her dad asked her to play guitar with him.
“I didn’t want to at first but I said yes because he’s my dad and I love him. I was watching and watching the chord changes and doing those with him. And then eventually he asked me to learn a song to sing, which I thought was ridiculous,” Harvey said.
But she accepted the challenge and began to watch herself sing from note to note and feel her throat as she sang, paying attention to the vibration. She did the same with scales and then tried to learn a single line of a song. Then, eventually, a whole song, which took 10 straight hours of nonstop work.
“It really was mostly just trusting myself that I was right based off of not being able to hear myself,” she said. “It ended up being quite a freeing experience to be able to sing without being able to hear myself because I can’t judge myself anymore. And that’s been one of the biggest blessings for my career, not being able to judge myself anymore.”
Regaining confidence, Harvey recorded a song in 2008 and sent it to her vocal coach.
Harvey’s coach was impressed and encouraged her to start taking voice lessons again. Harvey agreed and decided jazz was what she wanted to sing. Before Harvey knew it, she was singing open mic at a jazz club.
“In November of 2008, I showed up and I ended up singing in front of seven people at a jazz lounge in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Then they asked me to come back the next week and then the next week after that, and then pretty soon I was singing three hours a night and having concerts there on Saturdays,” she said.
Harvey went on to make a name for herself at other jazz clubs in Colorado. She eventually recorded an album, and began performing throughout the country. From there, her career in music took off.
So, when the opportunity to audition for “America’s Got Talent” came up in 2017, she took it.
“I told them I want to encourage people, I want to show a different side of failure to prove that it’s okay to fail and you have the ability to get back up again. I want to show a different side of what a disability looks like and show that there are a lot of invisible ones,” she said.
Today, she continues to tour nationally and internationally and is working on her fourth album.
If she hadn’t lost her hearing completely, Harvey said she’d most likely be working as a choir teacher and getting her doctorate in music.
“It’s funny that people think that because I’ve been on TV that what I’m doing is way better than what my original dream was, and I don’t think that that’s necessarily true at all,” Harvey said. “I think that I would have accomplished a lot in my field, but I never would have gone into performance. For music to still be my career is a huge blessing.”
She is particularly grateful, given the fact that more than 70 percent of deaf people are either unemployed or underemployed, according to Communication Service for the Deaf.
“In the United States, it’s a known fact that with hearing loss it’s harder to get jobs. The more severe the hearing loss, the less income you make, so it affects socio-economic health,” Stewart said.
To further raise awareness about hearing loss, Harvey teamed up with Hearing the Call, a nonprofit founded by Stewart that sends audiologists around the world to provide underserved populations access to hearing aids and care for hearing loss.
Harvey is headlining a concert series to support the organization. She hears her band by feeling the instruments’ vibrate through the floor. Half of her act is singing and half is an uplifting talk.
“It’s a privilege to be a part of an organization that’s giving the gift of communication. I don’t like thinking that we’re giving the gift of sound because sound’s different for every person, but the biggest isolation that I had when I lost my hearing is that I didn’t have a way to talk to people and understand them,” said Harvey. “I felt completely alone and that can ruin people to the core.”
Through her performance she not only hopes to entertain and raise awareness for the hearing impaired, but she also hopes to inspire others to embrace who they are at the moment.
“At the end of the day, I never really get a full grasp of what [my music] sounds like, but there’s no benefit to being upset about something that you can’t change. I’d rather look at the positives — that I get to experience these concerts differently than anybody else. It’s more special. It’s mine,” she said.
Harvey also pointed out that she’s learned to love the person she is today.
“This applies to any person. You don’t necessarily need to have a disability. I mean, you’re not the same person you were 10 years ago, right? And if you tried to chase who you were 10 years ago, you’d fail.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.