By Brady Rhoades
Mandy Harvey, who landed in the nation’s living rooms in 2017 with exquisite singing on America’s Got Talent, recently released her fifth album.
“Paper Cuts is a collection of stories and lessons learned,” Harvey said in an interview with DIVERSEability Magazine. “The album took form after my song ‘Masterpiece’ was created. It is about embracing who you are and the entire journey that’s brought you to where you are now. Each part is worth celebrating, even the parts that have been the hardest.”
It’s vital to Harvey, who is deaf, that people who live in worlds with dimmed or no sound be able to experience Cuts, which was independently funded, as well as all of her music.
“Paper Cuts is a labor of love that at the end of the day, I will never be able to hear,” said the 34-year-old. “I very much want to have an opportunity to experience this album along with the entire deaf and hard of hearing community. I teamed up with Voya Financial to make sure that we could increase accessibility by having an ASL video for each song performed on the album by deaf performers.
There are several music videos that are visual representations of the songs that were captioned in multiple languages, too… This project has been an amazing continuation of our ongoing collaboration to increase awareness of the need for greater disability inclusion. We want to start conversations about inclusion, as well as spread the important messages of these songs, which include mental health awareness and celebrating being unique.” While many companies have pledged to be more inclusive and diversity-minded, it’s a work-in-progress.
“I dream of both venues and events that have interpreters and access to various means of communication,” Harvey said. “The opportunity to offer art in multiple forms to people and places that typically wouldn’t have access to it. There are so many ways to be more inclusive, but it has to be a thoughtful choice and not just wishing things were better.”
There are encouraging signs.
“I have noticed more ASL inclusion, like this past Super Bowl during the national anthem, for example, and there are a lot more businesses on all sides that are letting their employees know that it’s OK to be different or need different tools,” she said. “More people are feeling like they have the ability to share their barriers with less fear of discrimination, too. We still have a long way to go, but we live in a world where we benefit immensely from diverse communities.”
As for employers recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities, Harvey said it starts at the top.
“Having CEOs and executives who see the value of implementing a diverse hiring practice is important. There are a lot of incredible people who have so much to give, but there is a very real fear of discrimination.”
Harvey, who was born in Ohio before moving to St. Cloud, Fla., then Colorado, suffered hearing problems as a child and underwent several surgeries to try to correct them. She sang throughout her childhood, and her talent was recognized at Longmont High School, from which she graduated in 2006.
She gradually lost her hearing as a result of the connective tissues disorder Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. While majoring in vocal music education at Colorado State University, she became totally deaf and left the university.
It wasn’t looking good, and she was feeling low. But with the aid of visual tuners, she learned how to find the correct pitches when singing. In 2008, she met jazz pianist Mark Sloniker at Jay’s Bistro in Fort Collins, Colo., where she began performing regularly. She later performed at Dazzle Jazz Lounge in Denver and recorded three studio jazz albums: Smile, After You’ve Gone and All of Me. She also released Nice To Meet You before this year’s Paper Cuts. Jazz Times described her singing as “rich and captivating.”
In 2011, Harvey won VSA’s International Young Soloist Award, and she performed at the Kennedy Center.
In 2017, Harvey — who likes to bake bread, rollerblade and do CrossFit in her private time — appeared on season 12 of America’s Got Talent, where judge Simon Cowell was visibly blown away when she performed an original song using a ukulele. She finished fourth.
The same year as her America’s Got Talent appearance, she published a memoir with co-author Mark Atteberry titled, Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound.
Harvey is an ambassador for the nonprofit organization No Barriers, which helps disabled people overcome obstacles.
Asked what’s in the works for the future, the star said, “My goodness! There are so many things I am working on. As far as music goes, I have a holiday EP that I would like to release this year. I have several albums worth of songs in my head that I need to get out, too.”
Yes, those songs are imprinted on her brain. She has said that most of what she sang and heard before going deaf is “locked and loaded” in her head, and so are current and future songs.
Harvey writes her own lyrics about all manner of things. Here are some lines from a song called “Masterpiece,” which is on the Cuts album:
When I feel like I’m all broken pieces
That I wish I could just throw away
Look for glue I can put in between them
Back in place, back in place
‘Cause my heart is way up on the ceiling
And my mind took a boat, sailed away
But I still got my angels and demons
Used up string, can of paint
And more from “Bought Myself Roses,” on the same album:
I’ve been flying on a feeling
Breaking through the ceiling
This could become
Heaven, I could let myself in
Look in all directions it’s already done
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 37 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing. Millions of others live with hearing disorders such as tinnitus. There have been extraordinary medical and technical advances that are helping those with hearing issues. That includes about 800,000 cochlear implants worldwide and 60,000 in the U.S. However, the statistics are dubious barometers because of evolving criteria for who qualifies as deaf or hard of hearing.
There are thousands, maybe millions, who want to become allies to the deaf and hard of hearing community, which, of course, is good news. The tough news is that many, if not most, are hesitant for a number of reasons. Harvey has a keep-it-simple tip that can serve as a takeaway for those serious about doing their part.
“Every person’s journey is different. You can never assume you know best how to help someone. The only way to know how best to be an advocate is to start a conversation with that individual. As people, we need to understand that we judge quickly, and that is something we have the power to change.”