For years I’ve wondered what was going through Beethoven’s head when the last note of the ninth symphony had died off and he stood there onstage hearing nothing. No applause. No whistles or cheers. Just silence. As the story goes, only when his concertmaster turned him around did he realize that the audience was standing and clapping and roaring its approval.
Thankfully, Mandy Harvey was facing her audience on “America’s Got Talent” recently when she sang her song “Try” and brought down the house. The entire theater was on its feet, hands clapping and waving; there was hardly a dry eye to be seen.
Getting Life Back on Track
It seems extraordinary when someone who is a member of the deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHOH) community shows herself to be a singer and musician of singular talent. Ms. Harvey has been deaf for the past 10 years, having lost her hearing to a connective tissue disorder when she was 18. Yet that has not stopped her from pursuing her music. She stands in stocking feet onstage to feel the rhythm of the bass and piano; she eyes her ASL translator at the foot of the stage, who signs questions and answers to her from the judges. She strums a ukulele she cannot hear and sings with what can only be called an extraordinary voice. One can only hope that what she hears inside her head sounds as glorious to her as it did to everyone else in that theater.
Ms. Harvey would be an astonishing performer even if she were not deaf. But the fact remains that her deafness has forced her to overcome greater obstacles to succeed. She’d been singing since she was 4 but left music after she lost her hearing. “But then I figured out how to get back into singing,” she explained to the judges at “America’s Got Talent,” “with muscle memory, using visual tuners and trusting my pitch.”
This makes the song that Ms. Harvey sang, a composition of her own entitled “Try,” that much more moving:
“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/ And I will take my place again/ If I would try … If I would try …”
It’s in that spirit of trying, despite the obstacles, that we find what’s truly extraordinary. It’s the desire to succeed, the refusal to accept defeat when what you want to do seems so inaccessible, that not only shines in Ms. Harvey but also shines in so many members of the DHOH community.
Putting Deeds into Words
Ms. Harvey’s performance is also a reminder of what we in the broader community need to keep in mind. After she had finished singing, “America’s Got Talent” judge Simon Cowell said, “Mandy, I don’t think you’re going to need an interpreter for this” — and then he slammed his hand down on the show’s famous golden buzzer.
Mr. Cowell was right: There was no need for Ms. Harvey’s ASL interpreter to explain what that meant at all. She had just stolen the hearts of every member of that audience, and she was heading straight to the live show.
But that’s the thing: Some actions don’t need words, but most actions and most thoughts do. This is why live, interactive captioning systems are so important. Many members of the DHOH community don’t know ASL; they depend on the written word to know what questions are being asked, what opinions are being expressed. It’s insulting to suggest that the DHOH communities need to try harder to find ways to understand what’s going on; they try and try and try every day. The very least that the broader community can do is to make a complementary effort and try to make those questions, conversations and opinions accessible to all.
The DHOH are not The Other. They’re our friends and neighbors, our co-workers and relatives. I’d say, “they’re us,” but, in truth, I think they’re more than that. They try and try, and they get up and do it all over again the next day. In that way, they show us our better selves, and I draw inspiration from that on a daily basis.