Mandy Harvey

Singer-songwriter Mandy Harvey, who is deaf, will perform at an April 18 concert benefiting the South Carolina School of the Deaf and the Blind Foundation.

What do we call people with certain physical or mental challenges? The old word, now considered disparaging, was “handicapped.” A more recent, and generally more acceptable, word is “disabled.” But that’s not necessarily accurate. It’s a negative word, one that refers to a shortcoming or limitation.

Is someone with Asperger’s Syndrome “disabled,” or merely different? Is someone who cannot see the physical world but can envision a universe within "limited," or does she possess unique talent?

These questions have led some to adopt a new term altogether: differently abled. Consider Mandy Harvey and perhaps you will decide this is appropriate.

Harvey is an accomplished singer-songwriter who catapulted onto the national stage in 2017 when she appeared on “America’s Got Talent” and judge Simon Cowell hit the Golden Buzzer, awarding her a direct route to the live show in Hollywood. Cowell was very impressed with Harvey’s musicianship and with her personal story.

A connective tissue disease had rendered her completely deaf.

Harvey will be in Charleston for a concert on Thursday, April 18, at the Charleston Music Hall. Proceeds benefit the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind Foundation.

She will be joined on stage by the school’s choir. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg will serve as emcee. For more information and tickets, call 843-853-2252 or go online to bit.ly/2C3jT36.

Singing her way to celebrity

In an email exchange with The Post and Courier, Harvey said she has long had a passion for music and its ability to bring people together. As a result she decided early to become a music educator, she wrote.

"When I was 4 years old, my mom put me in a church choir, and I fell in love with it," Harvey wrote. "I had hearing problems even then and felt like I was always missing parts of the conversations going on around me. In that choir, all the words were written on paper and I knew exactly what was being communicated. Also, I found a new group of friends and felt like I was part of a community. That was something that I loved dearly and I wanted to always experience."

After she lost her hearing at age 18, she learned to abandon that inner voice that reminded her of her limitations and find a way to re-engage with music, she wrote.

"The opportunity to be on 'American’s Got Talent' in 2017 came when I was assessing my life and future goals," Harvey wrote. "I wanted to encourage others, especially those who were going those tough, dream-crushing times, like I had. I also wanted to help people think differently about what people with disabilities, or differing abilities, are capable of."

She didn't expect to go far on the show; it was just a way to encourage others, and to push herself outside her comfort zone, she wrote. Instead, she became a celebrity.

"I know that there are tons of talented people out there," she wrote. "I’m just one person pursuing my love for music. The advice I have received is, work hard, stay true to yourself and never get lost in your own press releases."

Schooling for the differently abled

The S.C. School for the Deaf and the Blind can trace its origins to 1849, when the Rev. Newton Pinckney Walker, with support from his wife Martha Hughston Walker, opened a small school to accommodate several deaf students. Their own three children were deaf, and Walker had traveled to Georgia to learn methods for teaching differently abled children.

Before long, he received state support, and the school grew in size and scope. Today, the 160-acre campus serves 121 residential K-12 students, 133 day students, a bunch of summer campers and, through its outreach programs, more than 1,000 kids throughout the state.

It has two remote centers, one in Columbia and one in Charleston, that offer early intervention programs, vision and hearing accessibility services, sign-language services and more, all free to deaf and blind people in the state. The Colson Outreach Center in Charleston was reopened in 2015 after a five-year shutdown due to lack of state funding.

For 140 years, the school provided an oasis for young deaf and blind people in South Carolina. In 1991, Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which made it possible for deaf and blind students to attend local schools.

“That changed the mission,” said Samuel Hook, executive director of the school’s foundation. It meant more outreach and less concentration of resources and curriculum at the Spartanburg campus.

Nevertheless, the school is fully accredited and administers curriculum devised by the Department of Education, like any other school.

It's Cedar Springs Academy serves South Carolina students with multiple disabilities.

About 6 percent of South Carolina’s 5 million residents report significant hearing or sight impairment, according to a 2013 Cornell University report.

The school offers an array of traditional and nontraditional curricula.

“We have an outstanding fine arts program,” noted Public Relations Director Katie Rice. “The chorus is made up of all kinds of students. When you see them perform, you’ll have some singing and some signing.”

'A way to express myself'

Harvey cannot hear anything, but she can feel her voice vibrating inside her head, and she can feel the beat. Her perfect pitch comes in handy, too. Now, at 30, she is an artist in demand. But how does she do it?

"When I am singing, I am relying on music theory to guide me through the song," she wrote. "Every note has been painstakingly practiced and monitored using visual tuners while simultaneously paying attention to how each note vibrates inside my throat/chest/nose."

She visualizes the score, following with her mind's eye the notes on the staff, identifying the intervals, all while paying attention to the vibrations she can feel with her body.

"In addition, I’m focusing on the vibrations from the other musicians I’m performing with to keep me in time with the band," Harvey wrote. "It’s a ton of work but very much worth it. Music is a part of my soul so I will find a way to express myself no matter how hard it is."

Her words are music to Hook's ears.

“That’s one of the things we try to instill in our students: Don’t let that disability get in the way of you realizing your full potential,” Hook said. “We want our students, when they leave here, to be fully functioning adults, and to work around their disability, which is what every parent wants for their child.”

Harvey, differently abled, proves it’s possible.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.