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iPhone “Talking” Apps Push the Right Buttons for Speech Disabilities

May 28 2009 | by


The phrase “Cat got your tongue?” is an all-too-real question for someone rendered speechless by disability. With text-to-speech becoming more widely available on computers and cell phones — used mostly for voice-dialing and menu controls — it’s great to see new applications for the iPhone and BlackBerry that are helping people with disabilities to “speak” again.

Text-to-speech “apps” for smartphones are a portable and fashionable alternative to traditional speech devices, which can cost many thousands of dollars. Assistive technology vendor Gus Communications and MobileTTS offer the iPhone Communicator, which also works with the iTouch. The software, which costs $700 not including the phone, uses NeoSpeech, a premium quality speech synthesizer. NeoSpeech is used in the Kurzweil reading systems and by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who uses it with a Freedom 2000 computer to give lectures around the world.

Gus Communications will soon release a similar app for the BlackBerry Curve, Bold and Storm. You can demo NeoSpeech’s three voices in several languages, including English, Spanish and Chinese. Or, watch a video showing how these apps work.

To be sure, traditional communications devices are a lifeline for people with severe intellectual or developmental disabilities, including ALS or cerebral palsy. Augmentative alternative devices, or “auggies,” let people with severe disabilities participate in everyday life, hold a job and remain independent. From simple, portable picture keyboards like EasyTalk to complex machines like Hawking’s Freedom 2000 and the DynaVox VMax that lets users surf the Web and send emails, the power of auggies cannot be underestimated. The VMax system even lets users control the machines using alternative devices: Push buttons, sip/puff “straws” and even their eyes.

But for lesser disabilities, like autism and learning disorders, iPhone and BlackBerry apps may be just what the doctor ordered. USA Today recently profiled a JW Clark, a 7-year-old boy with autism whose mother purchased him an iTouch and loaded it with Proloquo2Go, an app that lets him “talk” to his family and friends. With Proloquo2Go, Clark can touch icons to express comments or questions, such as, “I want Grandma’s cookies” or “I’m angry — here’s why.” He uses his iTouch to communicate with everyone — including his service dog, Roscoe.

The introductory price for Proloquo2Go is $149.99 n iTunes, but will increase to $199.99. That makes the cost of Clark’s entire talking system around $500 — a bargain compared to traditional communications devices.

Being able to voice one’s needs, thoughts and opinions — where to get the best Mexican food, perhaps? — is one of life’s greatest liberties. Now people with speech impairments can look even cooler when they’re communicating.

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