11-year-old overcomes deafness, competes in National Spelling Bee Neil Maes, 11, of Belton, S.C., center, and his mother Christy Maes, are interviewed by a television station at The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell) in Washington, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
11-year-old overcomes deafness, competes in National Spelling Bee
Lexile

Making it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee is an amazing achievement for any kid. But for 11-year-old Neil Maes, being born deaf made his journey especially unlikely.
 
Neil received cochlear implants in both ears as a baby. After that he had to train his brain to understand spoken words. It took countless hours of speech therapy.
 
"We didn't even know that he'd be able to talk. It wasn't a guarantee," said his mother, Christy Maes.
 
Now the soft-spoken kid from Belton, South Carolina is officially one of the nation's top young spellers. He earned the right to take the stage with 281 others in preliminary rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It is held in Washington.
 
The final rounds are May 26.
 
The only assistance Neil requires is that the bee's pronouncer will speak into a microphone. It transmits an FM signal directly into his cochlear implants. It is similar to the technology he uses in school. It allows him to filter out background noise and focus on each word.
 
Neil's parents have given him another tip. They coached him to always ask the pronouncer for the definition of a word. That is so he can be sure he heard it correctly. Most contestants do this anyway.
 
Peter and Christy Maes had no experience with deafness in their families. It turns out they're both carriers for a genetic mutation. It causes hearing loss. Neil got his first implant at 11 months old. One of his two younger sisters was also born deaf. She has implants as well.
 
"My goal was for him to meet his potential. No matter what it was," his mother said. "It turned out to be pretty good!"
 
Cochlear implants bypass the non-functioning parts of the ear. They send an electrical signal directly to the hearing nerve. Speech, music and other noises don't sound exactly like they do to a person with normal hearing. But, the brain can learn to process those sounds in a similar way over time. This is according to Dr. Michael Hoa. He is a surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. He performs cochlear implantations.
 
But these implants are merely a tool, the doctor said. Neil's intelligence and work ethic get credit for the rest.
 
"He's able to handle very complex words. You tell him, 'Spell this word,' and he's able to actually visualize what that sounds like in his head and spell the word. It's actually quite impressive," Hoa said. "There's a lot that goes into training your brain to do that."
 
Christy Maes gave up her nursing job to help Neil through speech therapy. Now she works as a preschool teacher.
 
She choked up several times when talking about her son's journey in an interview at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. It's a group that advocates for early intervention to help hearing-impaired kids.
 
Neil's parents didn't know he was participating in a spelling bee with his third-grade class. One day, he came home and told them he had won. He made it all the way to his regional bee that year. He finished second. Now Neil is in the fifth grade. He is naturally shy and was already worn out from the hectic bee-week schedule. He seemed happy to let his mom do most of the talking.
 
"Our main hope out of all of this was to encourage and inspire people that are going to be facing what we had to face," Christy said.
 
But Neil said coming to the bee has motivated him to study even harder. He wants to return next year.
 
"It's just fun," Neil said, "because I've never been here before. And I just want to do it again."

Filed Under:  
Assigned 88 times
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why must Neil “train his brain?”
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (7)
  • sydneym-3-bar
    5/27/2016 - 03:25 p.m.

    Neil has to "train his brain" to prepare for the spelling Bees. Since he he is deaf, he can visualize complex words and how they are pronounced in his head to help him spell the words. I am very shocked that he is able to participate in all these spelling Bees without that much help. I found it really cool that he can visualize the words and then spell them out correctly.

  • markm-3-bar
    5/27/2016 - 04:02 p.m.

    He has to train his brain because his brain has to learn how to process the words that go into the microphone. He is a little bit deaf which gives him a setback in the spelling bee competitions. I think that it is really cool that this kid is doing everything that he can to make his life fun considering his deafness.

  • christian12-bur
    6/17/2016 - 01:47 p.m.

    Neil must train to his brain to get smarter and remember things like spelling words.

  • joonhee0415-byo
    7/11/2016 - 04:03 p.m.

    Neil has to train his brain because he is deaf and has to understand spoken words. Neil is a great kid even though he is deaf. Neil also won spelling bee and that might have a very hard accomplishment for him because he is deaf and has to spell the word the person tell them to spell but he won and when he came back to his home he told his parents that he won in spelling bee and they were so proud. HIs mother was a nurse and she gave up her job to help Neil for through his speech therapy. This was the best article for me in tween tribune and I hope I can meet Neil.

  • aidanv-arl
    7/30/2016 - 11:38 a.m.

    Neil must train his brain because he can not hear well with his cochlear implants.

  • franklina-arl
    8/04/2016 - 12:25 p.m.

    He has to train his brain to prepare for spelling tests and to try his best with those cochlear implants.

  • waiyan1-eri
    8/25/2016 - 06:42 a.m.

    He'll have to memorize words and at the same time, he'll have to recognize what they're saying.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment
ADVERTISEMENT