Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, cannot speak because of a debilitating motor neuron disease. Since 1985, however, he has spoken with the help of a complex speech synthesiser that produces the electronic, American-accented voice he has come to be identified with.
While Hawking’s device was custom-build for him by a Cambridge engineer, an unlikely device is now helping many ordinary folks with disabilities communicate better-the iPad.
The swish Apple gadget that we mostly associate with fun stuff such as games, music and movies, can also greatly help those who have been dealt a bad hand by life. A number of iPad apps-small software programs that run on the device-are turning the tablet computer into a specialised assistive device.
OneVoice is one such app that has been acclaimed for its effectiveness with children with autism and others with temporary or permanent speech impairment. The highly-customisable $200 app lets users build sentences using large tile icons as well as a key board.
The idea is to minimise input effort and maximise effectiveness of output. The large, responsive screen of the iPad makes it ideal as an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. AAC is a technique that augments the communication methods of anyone dealing with speech or mental impairment.
“OneVoice provides the most usable way for those with speech disabilities to communicate. By selecting tiles you can build sentences that will be synthesised into speech. OneVoice is easy to customise and tailor to each person’s needs, so it can serve a child with autism and an adult who has had a stroke equally well,” said Nathan Barry of ThinkLegend, developers of OneVoice.
Children with autism have taken to iPad so well that a host of apps have sprung up to assist them in communication. There is even a blog-AppsForAutism-dedicated to reviewing such apps.
Conventional AAC devices in a tablet form have been around for some time. Some, like the Dynavox 3100, cost $6,500. Besides, they’re bulky, have poor battery life and are limited in their functions and the level of customisation they offer due to the proprietary software they feature.
The iPad, in contrast, can add speech synthesisers, AAC apps, autism-specific learning tools, flash cards, memory tools and behaviour monitors. All for the starting price of the iPad (Rs 29,500) plus the cost of the app. Talking Cards, a $36.99 app for the iPad, has been developed for children with all sorts of disabilities.
“The app is adapted for children with limited motor skills. This is because we developed it with our own son in mind, who has a certain ‘clumsiness’ when he is pointing and often slips with his fingers,” says Staffan Erlandsson, co-founder of Timagine, the developers of Talking Cards.
“It is most beneficial for those who want an early-stage communication tool with a friendly interface that encourages communication, without worrying about difficult menus and settings. It’s also easy for the parent or supervisor to add their own pictures, text and sounds,” he added.
Verbally is one of the only full-featured AAC apps for the iPad that is completely free. The app enables a user to communicate needs and wants with minimal button presses-sentences can be generated by selecting a combination of words, which the iPad then ‘speaks out’ in a male or female voice. All data is stored on the device itself, so no 3G or wi-fi connection is needed to use it.
Intuary, the makers of the app, has a mission-to empower users through intuitively designed apps that are affordable and widely accessible. Verbally was developed out of the special need of one person. “To make sure that no one ever has to suffer the loss of connection to a loved one, we are committed to always offering a free version of Verbally,” said Ajay Godhwani, CEO of Intuary.