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 and 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 but 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, and 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 and now 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 (5)
  • holdeno-3-bar
    5/26/2016 - 04:00 p.m.

    Neil must train his brain because he has to recognize speech patterns. When talking about Neil's predicament, the author said that he was "born deaf" (par. 1) Being naturally deaf, Neil has no background from which to recognize speech. So, he had to condition his brain to process words.
    I was surprised by this article because deaf people normally can't perform orally at such a high level.
    ***I did additional research, and Neil has survived the first round, one of 171 people to continue.***

  • erino-6-bar
    5/26/2016 - 11:27 p.m.

    Neil must "train his brain" so that, when given a word, he is able to "visualize what that sounds like in his head and spell the word." This is an astounding accomplishment that allows him to easily surpass others when it comes to spelling. In addition, he was born deaf which means it took years of therapy before he could speak. Being able to visualize the word was one thing that helped him learn to understand what people say.

    I liked this article because when he was born, doctors thought he wouldn't even be able to talk but he overcame that and competed in the national spelling bee.

  • carsonb-2-bar
    5/27/2016 - 12:39 a.m.

    Neil Maes was born deaf. When he was a baby he had cochlear implants put in both ears. After that, he had to train his brain to understand spoken words. The implants bypass the non-functioning parts of the ear by sending an electrical signal directly to the hearing nerve. Noises don't sound exactly like they do to a person with normal hearing. Because of this, Neil had to train his brain to understand the words. I liked the article because Neil did not give up.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    7/31/2016 - 01:05 a.m.

    Neil must "train his brain" because he has to learn to interpret the sounds his cochlear implants send to his brain. Although Neil was born deaf, his implants allow him to hear spoken words and music, but the way he hears such things is a little different from the way that someone who is born able to hear does.

  • zakrym-ste
    12/05/2016 - 01:42 p.m.

    this is pretty cool. it is bad that kids like this have many set backs that will not let them compete. it inhibits their ability to live a normal life. it is cool to see this kid go after his dream.

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