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.
 
After receiving cochlear implants in both ears as a baby, 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," his mother, Christy Maes, said.
 
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 in Washington.
 
The final rounds are May 26. The only assistance Neil requires is that the bee's pronouncer will speak into a microphone that transmits an FM signal directly into his cochlear implants. 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, coaching him to always ask the pronouncer for the definition of a word, so that 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 that causes hearing loss. Neil got his first implant at 11 months old. One of his two younger sisters was also born deaf, and 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 by sending an electrical signal directly to the hearing nerve. While speech, music and other noises don't sound exactly like they do to a person with normal hearing, the brain can, over time, learn to process those sounds in a similar way, said Dr. Michael Hoa, a surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital who 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, 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 until he came home and told them he had won. He made it all the way to his regional bee that year, finishing second. Now a fifth-grader, Neil is naturally shy and 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, so he can return next year.
 
"It's just fun," Neil said, "because I've never been here before, and I just want to do it again."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why must Neil “train his brain?”
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (23)
  • genevieveb-6-bar
    5/26/2016 - 08:17 p.m.

    Neil must "train his brain" because he was born deaf and did not hear spoken word directly after birth. In the article's middle, it states,"Neil got his first implant at 11 months old" (paragraph 7). Neil was nearly a year old when he first received his cochlear implant, a tool that enables him to hear. Due to Neil obtaining the hearing tools at close to a year old, he needed to "train his brain" to process words.

    I found this article inspiring because it is truly amazing that a deaf child can overcome his disability to be the champion in a competition in which he previously could not have joined.

  • caitlynk-2-bar
    5/26/2016 - 09:28 p.m.

    Neil must train his brain because naturally his brain doesn't understand sound so his brain doesn't process that how to speak. His brain needs to train itself how to speak and do other things naturally too. His brain also needs to use other senses in order to find out what people are saying. This article was interesting because it is cool to see that people are stepping out of there comfort zones in order to achieve their goals. This article surprised me because it showed that even if you have some sort of disadvantage you can still achieve your goals.

  • carlym-4-bar
    5/26/2016 - 10:40 p.m.

    Neil trains his brain because he needed to train his brain to spoken words. "After receiving cochlear implants in both ears as a baby, he had to train his brain to understand spoken words. It took countless hours of speech therapy."
    I enjoyed this article because I found it interesting that Neil overcame deafness during the Spelling Bee.

  • ericw-6-bar
    5/27/2016 - 12:52 a.m.

    Neil must train his brain because overcoming deafness to hear when you never had before can be overwhelming like a very loud noise to us.

  • daytonb-3-bar
    5/27/2016 - 10:28 a.m.

    Neil must train is brain because of his cochlear implants which have been programmed to hear human words.

  • valeriep-1-bar
    5/27/2016 - 06:54 p.m.

    Neil must train his brain because his brain doesnt function as fast as ours because he cant hear. Also he needs to train his brain because of his cochlear implants.

  • taylore-1-bar
    5/30/2016 - 03:35 p.m.

    Neil has to train his brain so he can hear the specific words and filter out background noise. This article also said that he trains his brain and now competes in spelling bees. I thought this article was interesting and surprising because I never knew that you could overcome being deaf. One thing I learned from this article was that Neil's parents carry a genetic mutant for loss of hearing so their other daughter was also born deaf.

  • maggiec-3-bar
    5/30/2016 - 10:13 p.m.

    Neil must "train his brain" because he is deaf and has a harder time hearing spoken words. In paragraph two of the article it says "After receiving cochlear implants in both ears as a baby, he had to train his brain to understand spoken words. It took countless hours of speech therapy." Neil has gone through so much in his life and can now hear words with the help of his implants. I thought this article was very inspiring because it is so cool that someone like Neil who is deaf, has worked so hard to accomplish something like this. It shows that even if you have some kind of disability, it shouldn't stop you from accomplishing your goals.

  • lilyg-2-bar
    5/31/2016 - 07:01 p.m.

    Neil must "train his brain" because he has to teach his brain how to understand words because he was born deaf. "he's able to actually visualize what that sounds like in his head and spell the word." This is interesting because I didn't know what deaf people went through to be able to do things like everyone else.

  • calis-3-bar
    5/31/2016 - 08:05 p.m.

    Neil trained his brain because he is deaf. "After receiving cochlear implants in both ears as a baby, he had to train his brain to understand spoken words. It took countless hours of speech therapy". Because he is deaf, he had to learn how to read lips, which is a hard process but necessary in order for him to be able to understand speech of those who can't sign and therefore words that are difficult to spell that may not be in the language of ASL. I found this article inspiring because it is truly amazing to see a boy work past everything the world has thrown his way and soar past greatness.

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