Eleven-year-old Neil Maes may not hear as well as you, but chances are pretty high that he can spell better than you. On Wednesday, May 25, hearing-impaired Maes competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, along with more than 200 other young students from across the country. It’s not the first time that a hearing-impaired participant has competed in the Bee, but this year’s competition seemed tougher than ever.
Maes, who hails from Belton, South Carolina, was born with a severe hearing impairment and began speech therapy at just six months old, according to The Washington Post. He got his first cochlear implant not long after, at 11 months old. During Wednesday’s preliminary round of the national spelling competition, Maes participated with the help of an FM frequency system. As one of his words — “actinide” — was read, the FM system transmitted the sound to the receiver on his head, which is part of the cochlear implant system. Maes spelled the word, which refers to a series of radioactive elements on the periodic table, correctly after asking for the definition. But unfortunately, Maes did not progress to the next round, which will take place on Thursday, after he later spelled the word “polychromatic” incorrectly.
In fact, out of the more than 200 participants in the competition, only 45 advanced to the May 26 finals. Officials made the Bee intentionally tougher this year to avoid the potential for a tie. Last year, two students ultimately shared the championship title, after what seemed like a never-ending duel. The Bee went on for 20 rounds, with neither of the winners making a single mistake.
This year, more than 170 students made it through the preliminary on-stage round error-free. The 45 who advanced to Thursday’s finals also passed a written test, which was administered on Tuesday. The test, which was out of 30 points, contained 12 spelling questions and 14 vocabulary questions.
Although he didn’t make it to the final rounds, Maes seemed to make quite an impression at this year’s Bee. On Tuesday, May 24, he and his family visited Washington, D.C.’s Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, The Washington Post reported, to speak about the technology that allows Maes to hear as clearly as he does. The Bee took place nearby in National Harbor, Maryland.
Maes was not the first deaf participant in the annual competition. According to the Bee organization, the first deaf competitor appeared in the 1996 event, placing 48th out of 247 spellers. Maes had even more competition than that this year, including a six-year-old first-grader from Texas. The Bee is expected to conclude on Thursday evening.
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