As Chris Riley sat in his Monday morning class at the Beacon School and listened to the teacher ask various current event questions, Riley quickly pressed buttons on his iPad-like device to verbalize an answer
“How are you feeling today?” Kendall Dearing, the speech language pathologist at the Beacon School, asked Riley.
Riley located and pressed the "happy" button before Dearing could even finish her sentence.
Although Riley was the one who chose the answer, “happy,” the voice which responded was a robotic adult male. For the 15 years Riley has been alive, that has been the voice speaking for him.
Some people cringe listening to the sound of their voice on a recording device. For someone nonverbal like Riley, hearing his own voice coming from a machine could be life changing.
Whether because of a life-altering accident that left an individual unable to communicate effectively or a congenital disorder such as cerebral palsy, many people depend on Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices, or AAC devices, to communicate their everyday wants and needs to those around them.
In fact, more than 10 million people live with voiceless-ness, according to VocaliD, a company specializing in synthetic human voices.
Until recently, those relying on AAC devices have been left with almost no personalized voice options beyond female or male, child or adult, Bridget Coologhan, a member of Ohio University’s chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA) said.
“It’s your voice. It’s who you are — it’s your identity. It’s what makes you, yourself,” Coologhan, a senior studying communications sciences and disorders, said.
But now VocaliD is doing something to give those using communication devices a more humanized, personalized voice that is unique to them.
If a person makes as much as a grunt or verbalizes a single vowel the VocaliD technology can match that sound to a voice donor in the VocaliD Human Voice Bank.
OU’s Chapter of NSSLHA is teaming up with VocaliD to add as many donors to the Human Voice Sound Bank as they can. Coologhan is the VoicaliD ambassador for NSSLHA.
“If I donate my voice and someone gets my voice, it will take whatever speech they can say and my speech and combine the elements of speech together to truly give them their unique voice,” Coologhan said.
Donating is simple, said Coologhan. All that is needed is a quiet room and a laptop that is able to record sound.
One sentence at a time, the donor is shown a few thousand sentences to read aloud. This can be done in a few sessions that take a few hours or many smaller sessions of just 5 minutes. The NSSLHA estimated it takes anywhere from 5 to 7 hours to complete the entire donation.
Students should not be intimidated by the time commitment, Sophia Hendrix, OU’s NSSLHA president, said.
“You’re literally impacting somebody’s life. You’re giving somebody who is unable to speak, a voice of their own,” Coologhan said.
Riley, a student at the Beacon School, a school for students with developmental disabilities, is one of those individuals who depends on an AAC device due to an apraxia of speech, a speech disorder that causes “problems saying sounds, syllables, and words,” according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
“Chris is very much wanting to communicate with us but because of the Apraxia, it’s a motor planning problem,” Kendall Dearing, the speech language pathologist at the Beacon School, said. “The brain is not really communicating with the articulators. The articulators are like your tongue and your lips. It’s not really making that connection to tell them what to do.”
Even though Riley only began working with his device at the beginning of this school year, his vocabulary is already extensive enough to discuss topics like his emotions and why he is in that particular mood.
If matched with a donor from VocaliD, Riley would be able to hear that he is "happy," in his own voice.
“He’d be perfect for it,” Dearing said. “Because he’d be able to understand, ‘Oh, hey, that sounds a little like me,’ … I think that’d be huge for him.”
NSSLHA’s voice drive is running now through the end of the semester. To learn more on how to get involved and donate your own voice, email OU’s National Student Speech Language Hearing Association at OU.NSSLHA@gmail.com.