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Roll Over Beethoven: 6 Modern Deaf Musicians

Famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven began to lose his hearing around the age of 25. By the time of his death, he was completely deaf. But that never stopped him from writing some of the most beautiful music the world has ever known. Beethoven is proof that music isn't just in the ears, but comes from the heart and from the soul. His legacy is carried on today by many deaf and hard of hearing musicians, including these six performers who don't need to hear to express themselves through song.

Mandy Harvey

Jazz singer Mandy Harvey always had a hearing problem. In her youth, she'd had infections that affected her hearing, but only to the point that she had to sit at the front of the class in order to understand the lecture. Her hearing loss was never enough to keep her from pursuing her passion - music. When she entered Colorado State University, she had every intention of becoming a vocal music professor upon graduation. That is until her hearing began to rapidly deteriorate, and, despite medical treatment, she lost hearing in both ears during her Freshman year.

For the next year she was plunged into a deep depression, but she eventually came out of her funk when she realized she could still play music on the piano and use her perfect pitch to simply remember how to sing the notes. While Harvey says her hearing loss is categorized as "profound," meaning she can only hear anything over about 110 decibels, she is still able to "feel" the music as so many deaf musicians can, by sensing the vibrations of the bass and rhythms. She also uses her talents as a piano player to watch her favorite accompanist, Mark Sloniker, as he hits notes and chords to help her stay on cue. It's through these adaptations that Harvey has launched a career despite her hearing loss, releasing her debut album, Smile, in 2009, and performing a weekly gig at Jay's Bistro in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Sean Forbes

Sean Forbes has been deaf as long as he can remember. He's also wanted to be a musician for just as long. Forbes became profoundly deaf when he developed a severe illness at only one year old. However, both of his parents played in bands, so music was a constant part of his childhood, whether it be from an instrument or from the stereo that was playing hits from The Beatles and Motown. Attracted to the vibrations from the beat, he first started playing the drums around the age of five, but moved up to guitar and bass by the time he was 10. The rap thing came later, though with the genre's use of room-shaking bass, it should come as no surprise he'd gravitate towards the music. After shooting an American Sign Language music video of fellow Detroit rapper Eminem's Lose Yourself, Forbes got noticed by Eminem's studio, 54 Sound, who helped produce his debut EP, I'm Deaf. (You can check out the music video for the title track here.) The EP helped Forbes gain the attention of BMI, who signed him to a record contract earlier this year.

But for Forbes, his career doesn't stop at a record deal. He has also turned his attention to other deaf artists by starting a non-profit organization called D-PAN (Deaf Performing Arts Network). D-PAN helps find and promote creative opportunities for deaf artists in a variety of fields, as well as produces American Sign Language videos of popular songs so that everyone can enjoy the music around them.

Beethoven's Nightmare

For three teenagers attending Galludet University, a school for deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington, D.C., it wasn't their disability that brought them together, but their love of rock 'n' roll. In 1971, Bob Hiltermann (drums), Ed Chevy (bass guitar), and Steve Longo (guitar) had dreams of playing on stage - and they weren't about to let their deafness hold them back. The trio soon formed Beethoven's Nightmare, the first all-deaf band in the world. With a show featuring screaming guitars, screeching vocals, and plenty of attitude, the only thing separating them from a "normal" band has been their use of sign language on stage.

Over nearly 40 years, like so many bands do, the group has broken up and gotten back together a few times, but they're here to stay since the release of their 2006 debut album, Turn It Up Louder. In support of the album, the group has been making special appearances at conferences for deaf organizations, as well as playing gigs at night clubs across the country. (Watch a clip from a gig here.) They have also been featured in a documentary currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit, See What I'm Saying, which highlights the struggles and triumphs of deaf performing artists.

Janine Roebuck

Progressive deafness ran in the family, but Britain's Janine Roebuck wasn't worried. She'd never had problems before, so she continued to pursue her love of music. However, while she was studying at Manchester University, she noticed that some sounds were starting to fade. After a hearing test, she was told, "Sing while you can, because you'll never have a career in music." Despite the prognosis, Roebuck continued her studies at the Royal Northern College of Music before moving on to the Paris Conservatoire and the National Opera Studio in London.

For 10 years, she kept her hearing loss a secret from all but her closest friends. She didn't even tell conductors, because she was worried about losing roles, or worse, getting roles simply because they felt sorry for her. So she found ways to hide her disability and adapt to her hearing level as it deteriorated. However, the stress of keeping up her charade became too much and she finally decided to get fitted for hearing aids. She was surprised to find that, rather than be scared off by her disability, many conductors were inspired by her courage, and her career has continued to grow. Shortly after she made her hearing loss public, she began working with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), the UK's largest charitable organization working for the deaf and hard of hearing. She became a trustee of the group in 2007 and has become one of the most vocal and respected proponents for the deaf community of Britain. You can watch a clip of her performance at the 2009 AMI Awards here.

Dame Evelyn Glennie

Every musical genre needs its outsider. The person who breaks the rules and breaks new ground for everyone else. For deaf musicians, their rebel without a cause is Scotland's Dame Evelyn Glennie. Not only is she the first professional solo percussionist, but she has also been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. Glennie is without a doubt the best-known deaf musician in the world, with a résumé that includes a Grammy-winning album, 25 solo albums, and more than 100 performances every year in venues all over the world. She has collaborated with some of the best orchestras and artists in music today, including such notables as Björk, Sting, and pianist Emanuel Ax. She released a Grammy-nominated album with banjo player extraordinaire Bela Fleck and even played a brief stint with a certain Grouch on Sesame Street. For her contributions to music, she has been awarded the title of Dame Commander, nearly the highest order of British chivalry.

However, if you visit Glennie's website, you probably won't even find a mention of her hearing loss. While she doesn't hide her deafness, she also doesn't promote it, preferring that people look beyond her condition, which she sees as "an irrelevant part of the equation." This preference has meant an uneasy relationship with others in the deaf community. She has been vocal about her refusal to learn sign language, as well as her belief that deaf children should not be sequestered into specialized schools. It is her belief that teaching deaf people that they are different is hindering them from achieving greatness. However, as the years have gone by, life experiences have helped her see some things in a new light. In 2008, after resisting for three decades, she started learning sign language, saying, "Your life changes and the choices you make change. I have a different view now, and I think it's good to keep an open mind."

The Hi-Notes

The future of deaf musicians is brighter than ever. Thanks to the UK charity group Music and the Deaf, kids are getting the chance to play as part of two musical groups – The Deaf Youth Orchestra and The Hi-Notes, which specializes in student-composed pieces.

Headed up by Danny Lane, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, the eight students that make up the Hi-Notes collaborate and experiment to write songs that are truly from the perspective of deaf musicians. Their songs are often experimental in nature and composed for the vibrations and sensations the young musicians receive as feedback, but also pleasing to the listening audience's ear.

In 2008, the Hi-Notes were chosen to take part in the Music for Youth Schools Prom, an event bringing together the best and brightest young musicians from across the UK. These artists are given the chance to perform in front of thousands of fans inside the Royal Albert Hall, a legendary venue known as one of the cultural centers of Britain. Under the direction of Lane, the Hi-Notes played their own piece, "Tutankhamen's Curse," an auditory exploration of the discovery of the boy king's tomb, receiving a rousing applause and breaking new ground in the art of deaf music. You can watch their performance here; it starts around the 3:45 mark.

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Gettu Images
9 People Who Just Did It Anyway
Gettu Images
Gettu Images

This week’s mental_floss video entitled 18 Famous People Who Are Missing Body Parts reminded me that April is Limb Loss Awareness Month. You may be aware that we have a continuing series about people who are technically classified as “disabled,” but don’t let it get in the way of doing as they please. While it’s still April, let’s meet some other people who are excelling in areas they weren’t supposed to because of lost limbs or other anomalies.

1. Baxter Humby

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Baxter Humby, nicknamed “One Arm Bandit,” is an MMA fighter and Muay Thai Kickboxer. He is currently the IMTC World Super Welterweight Champion. Shortly after birth, Humby’s right hand and most of his forearm was amputated due to injury from a tangled umbilical cord. He started running at a young age, made the Canadian National Paralympic Track Team, and participated in the Paralympics in 1992 and 1994. He took up martial arts at 17.

In addition to holding various martial arts championships, Humby teaches at both a martial arts school and his local YMCA, and finds time for motivational speaking as well. Humby also has his hand in show business: he starred in the Chinese film One Arm Hero, appeared on the TV show The Shield, and worked as a stunt man on the film Spider-Man 3.

2. Randy Pierce

Randy Pierce grew up in New Hampshire, a fan of sports, nature, and the New England Patriots. At age 22, his vision began to fail due to a neurological disorder. Eventually he went blind, and twelve years later, the disorder confined him to a wheelchair. Pierce was determined to regain his mobility, and worked for two years to leave the wheelchair. When he succeeded, Pierce and his guide dog Quinn climbed all 48 of the 4000+ foot peaks in the New Hampshire White Mountains! Pierce founded the organization 2020 Vision Quest, in order to funnel the funds he raised through mountain climbing to charities for the blind.

3. Lee Reid

Illustration by Joshua Drummond.

Lee Reid is a musician and composer who has a Master’s in Neuroscience from the University of Auckland. Ironically, as an adult he was stricken with a mysterious and painful neurological disorder that affected his hands. Reid could no longer work, nor could he play music. He still wanted to compose, but even with computer software, he couldn’t use his hands to control what he wrote. Reid came to the conclusion that he would have to design his own software. He read up on programming, and, using a mouse with his foot, created a composing program one character at a time. It took a year, and the result is Musink, a program in which you can write music notation with only a mouse, available free to download.

Two years after Reid lost the use of his hands, an experimental treatment restored enough function for him to return to neuroscience for a living, although he still suffers with pain. You can read an illustrated version of his story at Cakeburger

4. Nico Calabria

Nineteen-year-old Nicolai Calabria graduated from high school as an all-around athlete. He was co-captain of the wrestling team, midfielder for the soccer team, and hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He’s now working as a gymnastic instructor and a motivational speaker. All this, despite the fact that he was born without his left leg and hip. This fall, Calabria will travel with the US National Amputee Soccer Team to the 2014 Amputee World Cup in Mexico. He will also begin his college career at Colorado College. That’s a pretty good resume for a 19-year-old! See Calabria in action on video

5. Jahmir Wallace

Jahmir Wallace of Phillipsburg, New Jersey, was born without arms, so he does everything with his feet. The dexterity the fifth-grader developed with his toes is serving him well as he learns to play the trumpet. But even more important is Wallace’s can-do attitude.

“My older sister used to play the piano. So I thought maybe I should try an instrument. I thought maybe I could try and figure out new things,” he said.

6. Barney Miller

Photograph from No Means Go.

Barney Miller is an Australian surfer who was severely injured in a traffic accident 15 years ago. With his neck broken, he was told he’d never breathe on his own again, much less walk. With determination and hard work, he took his first steps with a walker last year. He is also in the water constantly, surfing with friends despite his lack of movement. Miller is the subject of a documentary called No Means Go which is in production now. 

7. Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham

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In 2010, hardcore sitter (extreme wheelchair athlete) Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham became the first person to successfully execute a double backflip in a wheelchair. Seeing just a part of what he went through to perfect the stunt will make you cringe, but it paid off. Born with spina bifida, Fotherington was also the first athlete to perform a single backflip in a wheelchair when he was only 14 years old! From his biography

After posting that “first ever back flip” on the Internet, life has changed for Aaron; he has had the opportunity to travel within the US, as well as internationally, performing and speaking in front of many. He has attended summer camps for disabled children as a coach/mentor. He has been featured in magazines, newspapers, and sports television. He receives and responds to e-mails from all over the world.

Aaron enjoys showing young kids with disabilities that a wheelchair can be a toy, not a restriction. He loves helping younger children learn how to handle their chairs in new and different ways and teaching them a trick or two.

Someday he hopes to design “the most wicked” chair in the world.

See a more recent video of Fotheringham showing off here.

8. Annette Gabbedey

British goldsmith Annette Gabbedey has been crafting custom jewelry and setting precious gems for 24 years, despite the fact that she was born without fingers. The "about" page at her business site doesn't even mention the lack of fingers, but as you can see from the picture, she doesn't hide it.

Gabbedey doesn't consider herself disabled, just different. She doesn't use special tools, but has her own method of using regular jeweler's tools, like setting the piece she's working on in a vice, and keeping a strap around her wrist to set a tool into. Gabbedey says fingers would just get in her way! See more pictures here.

9. Jorge Dyksen

Photograph from Twitter.

Jorge Dyksen is a 16-year-old high school soccer player, despite the fact that both his arms and both his legs were amputated due to a massive infection when he was a toddler. Adopted from Panama, he now lives in Haledon, New Jersey. He is the starting forward on the junior varsity team at Manchester Regional High School. See a video of Jorge in action.

See more stories of people with amazing accomplishments in previous posts of this continuing series.

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Raising Mercury
Four Cats With Fewer Than Three Legs
Raising Mercury
Raising Mercury

We often read stories about the amazing adaptability of animals. They endure pain, but they do not wallow in self-pity. A disabled animal will do what it must do to get on with life using what it has. A four-legged animal can get around pretty well on three legs, as I learned when our border collie lost one. In these stories, four cats learned to get around pretty well with even less than three. I should say fewer than three, but you know what less than three means: <3.

1. Mercury: Two Rear Legs

Meet Mercury, the kitten that gets around on his two rear legs, like a T. rex. He was found in September, when he was only about four days old, having already lost his two front forelegs and most of the toes on one back leg. Neighbors suspected it was due to a weed whacker. After veterinary care, he was placed with an Oklahoma foster family even before his eyes opened. Mercury learned to get around on two legs as he first learned to walk, and now he runs, jumps, climbs stairs, and holds his own with the other cats. His foster family decided to make him a permanent member of the family.

Photograph from Raising Mercury.

Here’s a video that shows how he moves around on two legs. You can see more pictures and videos at Mercury’s Facebook page.

2. Anakin: Two Front Legs

Photograph by Carrie Hawks via Facebook.

Anakin was born with neither a pelvic bone nor his rear legs. Artist Carrie Hawks adopted him as a young kitten from a feral colony of cats. He was named after the character who became Darth Vader, who was also missing some limbs. Ani learned to walk balancing on his front limbs only. The Hawks considered wheels for his back end, but since the kitten got around well enough without them, he does not use wheels. Besides, that would hinder him from climbing stairs or cat towers, which you can see him do here. If he needs wheels as he gets older, he will have them. This video was recorded in the summer of 2012, when Anakin was first settling into his new home.

Anakin had a few medical interventions due to his abnormalities. He lives with several other cats and a dog, and gets plenty of human interaction. The rest of Anakin’s feral family was captured, fixed, and vaccinated, and then relocated to a private woodland where they are fed regularly. You can follow Anakin, now full grown, at his Facebook page

3. Caffrey: Two Legs on One Side

Caffrey, a Persian cat in England, has had to adapt to losing a leg twice in his life. At age three, he was struck by a car and his left hind leg had to be amputated. His front left paw was damaged, too. He adapted to walking on three legs for the next ten years. Then about a year ago, Caffrey developed a tumor in his left front leg, where he was injured in the earlier accident. The best hope for his survival was amputation, but veterinarians thought he’d never be able to get around on just two legs on the same side. Caffrey’s owner Sue Greaves knew it was Caffrey’s best chance for survival, so the operation was carried out, leaving Caffrey with only his two right legs. The old cat surprised everyone by walking around on two legs only a few days after the second amputation! See how well Caffrey moves about in this video. 

Caffrey inspired WeiChang Chiu to create a short animation called Caffrey’s Run.

4. Callie Mae: No Paws At All

In 2008, an adult cat named Callie Mae was chased up a telephone pole by dogs. At the top, she was electrocuted, which did so much damage to her legs that they all had to be amputated above the knee joint. The Theodore Vet Clinic in Mobile, Alabama, cared for Callie Mae, who learned to walk on her stumps. By 2010, she was pronounced well enough to go to a permanent home

After the story ran in the local news, many people applied to adopt Callie Mae. There has been no news about her since then, but we assume that she found a home with one of the applicants.

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