A Talking Box for the Handicapped : Same Electronic Voice Can Deliver Different Messages

Myra Taylor touches the plastic box fastened to her wheelchair. "How are you?" she asks. "I feel happy today." In the wheelchair next to her, Michael Darlack leans over his box and announces, "I hate to wait."

The messages are different, but the electronically synthesized voice that says them is not. It is, in fact, produced by the SonomaVoice, a portable box that talks in sentences at the touch of a button. Taylor and Darlack each have one; because of their disabilities, they cannot speak for themselves.

The voice box was developed by Bob Russell, a psychiatric technician and director of communications engineering at the Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen.

No Money in It

He began working on it when he realized that although the technology existed, no one else was about to come up with a commercial product that would work for the most severely disabled because there's no money in it.

In the early 1980s, after the price of speech synthesis dropped from $7,000 to $70 when inexpensive microchips were introduced, Russell had high hopes that a cheap voice synthesizer would hit the market. Existing devices, which cost $3,000 and up, can be too expensive for the severely disabled, who often have little or no income, and also are too complicated for them to use.

"I was really expecting commercial products to become available," he said. "I decided to do it myself when that didn't happen."

It didn't happen, he explained, because even with the cheaper chips, "You could go broke trying to do this as a commercial enterprise. These folks are not a large consumer group, plus the range of their needs is tremendous."

When he started thinking about the SonomaVoice, Russell was working at the Sonoma Developmental Center as a qualified mental retardation professional and teaching basic nursing skills to psychiatric technician students. Computers and electronics were a hobby. He said he began by "visualizing the most difficult people to design for because those were the least likely to be commercially served." His goal was to design something inexpensive, easy to use and maintain, and capable of being customized for its users.

Up to 256 Phrases

The standard box has 16 keys that operate at four levels, giving the user 64 phrases. With the addition of a shift key option, the SonomaVoice can speak up to 256 phrases. Maximum message length is 61 phonetic sounds. Average cost is $350.

The boxes are individually made for their users, who choose what they want them to say. If they want to change them later, new phrases can be put on a replacement chip. The five-pound box can be held on the user's lap or mounted on a wheelchair, and runs on rechargeable batteries.

The keyboard has large, circular keys, each about the size of a silver dollar. They are covered with removable graphics, which represent the phrase that will be spoken when the key is pressed. A different set of graphics can be inserted for each level, so an individual might start out the day with, say, a sheet of drawings representing "at-home vocabulary, then shift to out-and-about vocabulary and then to school graphics," Russell said.

A sample sheet of shopping graphics has drawings of a variety of clothing items as well as symbols for small, medium and large; for ordering at a fast-food restaurant, a sheet of drawings of a hamburger, a sack of French fries, a cola drink and the like can be inserted.

"How complicated it is depends on the sophistication of the user," Russell said. "It all comes out of somebody knowing the person and what works for him."

Myra Taylor has help from Leslie Cobb, a speech and language pathologist who made the drawings for her voice box. Now Taylor can ask to have her nails polished or her hair braided, suggest renting a movie or simply affirm "I don't like vegetables very much."

Not all the messages are sunny. Michael Darlack, who uses a wand attached to a headband to operate his SonomaVoice, has one that says "I want to be alone." Russell said that sometimes, when the phrases are selected by the user's family without consultation with professionals, "there's nothing negative, like 'Get out of here. I don't need you.' " But no one can be cheerful night and day; so Russell said, "We have begun sending out letters giving examples of what other people have ordered" to nudge people toward including negative sentences.

People who use a SonomaVoice may have developmental handicaps, cerebral palsy, speech impairment following a stroke or some other condition that affects verbal communication. To date, they range in age from 2 1/2 to 79.

"Getting someone going at a very young age will be real interesting," Russell said. "Very likely, initially it will be a toy, but it should make a significant difference later, when a more sophisticated device will be more appropriate. It means (the child) can start generating speech right away."

'Powerful Learning Tool'

Russell said the advantages of the voice box go beyond basic communication. "It is a powerful learning tool," he said. "These folks get immediate feedback when they make their selections--they know when it works. This is motivating for folks. They know if they did it right or not, they don't have to wait for someone to affirm it. People are communicating more, and more effectively."

That the SonomaVoice spans distances is another important plus, Russell said, pointing out that with a picture book system of communication, for example, "They have to have someone look over their shoulder at it. And I have seen situations where one person knows one system of graphics, or sign language, and another another, and they cannot communicate."

Having the voice box enhances the user's status, Russell suggested, explaining, "There is a difference in pointing to a picture and in controlling a sophisticated electronic device, both in how others see you and in how you see yourself."

Engaging personalities have emerged from years of silence. One woman in her 70s has decided she wants "You know what you can do with your prune juice" on her board. Michael Darlack has messages like "Hi, good looking." Speech pathologist Robin Alvarez says, "Michael is a real good flirt. The more stuff like that, the more the staff will interact. It lets their personalities come out."

Diagnostic Tool

The voice box also can be a diagnostic tool, helping professionals assess the intellectual abilities of their clients who cannot speak. Russell says that when a Calaveras school district got a SonomaVoice for one disabled teen-ager, they were not sure he would be able to use it.

"The people around him didn't know how much he could understand. He seemed to have a good idea of what was going on, but it was difficult for them to gauge," he said.

Then, one day he took his box to the group home where he lives. "He was showing it to the caretaker there, when the phone rang," Russell recalled. "He reached over and pushed 'Hello, how are you?' Two months later, some people wanted to borrow it for the day to demonstrate it. His answer--'Am I going?' "

Another youngster, an 11-year-old, has at last begun to learn to read since getting his SonomaVoice.

Production of the devices started slowly, about a year ago. They are made at the Sonoma Developmental Center by Russell and a group of half-time college students. Components for the keyboard are made at a sheltered workshop there. It takes about a month to put a SonomaVoice together. "Doing the vocabularies is very time-consuming," Russell explained. "Each phrase has to be fine-tuned. We spend six minutes per phrase, on average."

The boxes can be customized in a number of other ways. For example, an earphone jack that cuts out the speaker can be installed, so students can practice without disrupting the classroom. Volume and pitch can be controlled. "It is still in the male range--there is nothing we can do about that," Russell said, "but if several people in the same setting are using it, (each box) can be set slightly differently, and then you know who is using it."

College Course

Russell, who began working with the developmentally disabled in 1963, said he "had always been interested in technology. I took a course at the local college on computers, got hooked, bought one and then learned electronics. It was a contrast with the people-involved things I was doing."

He does not expect to make money from his invention--indeed, has no desire to profit. He doubts that it can be patented. "The only reason to copyright it would be to make sure other people would make it on an at-cost basis."

But there is, after all, the reward of giving voice to those like Darlack, for whom even a simple 'No' had been impossible.

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