FREEDOM OF (SYNTHETIC) SPEECH: Justin Birch has used assistive communication devices to speak since a brain aneurysm in 2003 rendered him unable to use his own voice. Image: © DYNAVOX MAYER-JOHNSON
Justin Birch lost his ability to speak in 2003 as the result of a brain aneurysm, but these days he is such a facile conversationalist he can ask for his favorite dinner—Ruby Tuesday Minis with fries and a raspberry iced tea—as well as harass his opponents after he defeats them at Texas Hold 'em.
Of course, Birch, who turns 34 this week, is a polite resident of Cape Coral, Fla., who would never intentionally annoy anyone, but it is nice to have the same speech options as those who can speak on their own. Birch (who can walk with the aid of a cane) achieves this via an assistive communication device that allows him to tap out messages on a touch screen using a stylus. After his messages are composed, the portable pad uses special software to announce his thoughts in a simulated tones that sound similar to Justin's own pre-aneurysmal voice.
Eight out of 1,000 people—roughly 2.5 million in the U.S.*—cannot use their voice to communicate due to a variety of reasons, whether it is a birth condition such as autism or Down's syndrome, the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS—aka Lou Gehrig's Disease), or a traumatic event such a stroke or brain injury, says Jim Shea, vice president of marketing for Pittsburgh-based DynaVox Mayer-Johnson, which makes a range of assistive communication devices, including the V system that Birch uses.
In a sign of things to come, DynaVox and other makers of assistive communication devices are moving beyond Windows-based systems like the V to emulate smart phones like Apple's iPhone that integrate dynamic touch screens, wireless Internet connectivity and music players into a single portable package. The first of this next generation is the Xpress, a handheld communicator DynaVox introduced today.
These devices have come a long way from the gadgets first introduced in the late 1960s that allowed those who were mute to type out messages one letter at a time using a keyboard. For those without the use of their limbs, the typing was accomplished by watching a lighted display and puffing into a tube or touching a switch—depending upon the user's capability—when the desired letter was highlighted on a screen. British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, one of the most prominent users of such technology, communicates via a DECtalk DTC01 voice synthesizer developed by Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1980s. Disabled by a motor neuron disease, Hawking uses his cheek to depress a switch that helps him choose letters and words when communicating.
From these painstakingly slow devices sprang subsequent generations that made use of newly developed technologies, including computers, touch screens and even optics that could determine what one wanted to say by tracking a user's eyes as they moved across a digital display.
*Correction (8/11/09): This article originally stated that one out of eight people—roughly three million in the U.S.—cannot use their voice to communicate.