Neil smiles as he listens to his mom talk and tell stories about how he started speech therapy as a 6-month-old and had his first implant at 11 months. His ability to speak clearly and hear as well as he does is not just a result of medical advances, but of the fierce determination he and his parents have shown to make the technology work for them.
Neil is on his first trip to Washington to participate in the National Spelling bee along with a bit of some sightseeing and ride on the Ferris wheel at National Harbor, near where the spelling competition is being held. In Neil’s spare time, he enjoys reading his favourite novels- the “Narnia” series and the “Warriors” cat stories or studying spelling words. Neil’s teacher at Belton Elementary, Kerry Anderson refers to him as a “dream student” with his nose always in a book. She commented on how he is friends with everyone and believes there is not anything that is impossible for Neil.
As a third-grader, Neil entered the school spelling bee on a bit of a lark. After winning his grade bee, he went on and won in the school-wide competition. At the regional’s that year he came in second place. His mother loves to tell the story that after losing that year, Neil said that one of his goals was to win the regional competition. But when he wrote that goal down, he misspelled “regional.” Neil won his school bee this year and then took the regional competition to make it to the national bee. The big-time bee is strenuous, and Neil admitted Tuesday that he was getting a little nervous. In that respect, he is no different from almost every other contestant in the competition, which has gained a national following and is broadcast on ESPN and streamed live on its website. The Bee has accommodated spellers with special needs and has had a number of students with hearing impairments during the past decade, said spokeswoman Valerie Miller.
In Neil’s case, the word reader at the spelling bee will use an FM system, which will transmit the word over a small radio frequency to a receiver behind Neil’s head. The word is then transmitted to another tiny receiver known as a cochlear implant, which stimulates the auditory nerve that enables hearing. Although the method is unique, the result is still the same. Neil will hear the word as others do and will then have to spell it correctly. Neil has been practicing with his mother over the last few months. She describes him as a perfectionist, when asked to spell a hundred words; he will only be pleased if he gets them all right.
On Wednesday morning, the practice will meet the test of live competition. Neil, who has two younger sisters rooting for him at home, will join the other 284 spellers duking it out to see who will reign as this year’s champ. And like the rest of them, when he is called to the stage for his turn to spell, he’ll be thrilled to hear his name.