“Never heard ‘me’ before”: Using Technology to Give People Their Own Voice

March 16, 2015 BY Gina Ossanna, CCC-SLP

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS when he was a student at Oxford University, and lost his ability to speak long before he was done sharing his thoughts with the world. He was given a speech generating device (SGD) to help him express himself through augmentative communication. While his device has given him the ability to speak about his many groundbreaking theories, there has always been a bit of a hiccup: he is from England, but his device has an American accent.

Most users of speech generated devices have a limited choice of pre-programmed digitized voices that speak for them when they are accessing a communication system. Unfortunately, these voices may not match their age, regional dialect, or personality.

Rupal Patel, a former speech pathologist who is now founder and director of the Communication Analysis and Design Laboratory (CadLab), has committed her professional life to ensure that every SGD user has their own voice in a way that had never been done before.

Along with her team, Dr. Patel has created a program that will allow users of speech generated devices to embed their own voice within a digitized speech output system so that their own voice can be heard. In her TED talk, she states, “We wouldn’t dream of fitting a little girl with the prosthetic limb of a grown man, so why would we do this with the same prosthetic voice?”

I saw Dr. Patel speak at the annual American Speech-Language & Hearing Association (ASHA) conference in November, and it was inspiring to see how scientists are using technology to improve the lives of people who literally don’t have their own voice. 

As one boy stated when he was given his own voice on a SGD, “Never heard me before.” What’s even better, you can help! Watch Dr. Patel’s moving TED talk and find out how you can help to give each person their own voice.

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