Imagine going one day without the ability to speak. Now imagine a whole lifetime without that ability, perhaps coupled with an inability to move.
Disabilities like these are a reality for millions of children and adults, and technology is making communication easier for these people. Technologies such as tablets and cellphones that most can’t imagine living without have made life easier not only for the the average user but for users with speech and mobility disorders and disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to traumatic brain injuries.
The Speech and Language Clinic at ASU works to make this technology available for those with speech and language disabilities, not just students but those in the community.
Kelly Ingram, the clinical director for the clinic, said the work the clinic does is a vital resource for the community, offering speech therapy, language therapy and aid for those with cognitive issues.
“Most people don’t know we are even here,” she said.
Ingram said the range of technology on the market today has increased and developed significantly in the past few years.
“Technology is moving really fast,” she said. “Six months ago, nobody had tablets.”
Today, a lot of the software available to those with disabilities is based on tablets.
EyeTech, a company based in Mesa, develops tablet-accessible software. The company has been in the business of eye gaze technology for 16 years.
Craig Cannon, sales manager for EyeTech, gave a demo at the Speech and Language Clinic to people with the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS.
“Sixteen years ago, we were the first Windows-based eye tracker,” Cannon said.
EyeTech’s latest project is a tablet-based eye tracking package. It works with Windows 7 and 8 to allow users to use the Internet, control their environment and perform computing functions using only their eyes.
The tablet communicates with the EyeTech TM4 Mini eye tracker and allows for quick and easy use of a computer, completely hands-free, Cannon said.
EyeTech is not the only company using the eye tracking technology and tablets. Prentke Romich Company also uses eye gaze technology to make communication easier. The software can also record voice for users who still have speech capabilities so they have a bank of phrases ready to play when they eventually lose their voice, which is common with progressive disorders like ALS.
PRC representative Tami Taylor demonstrated this technology to the group of ALS patients, some of whom are not ready for the technology, but are preparing for a future where they cannot speak.
Marilyn Hardy, Health Care Service coordinator for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, said discussing the future of a patient’s disease is tough, but it is a reality that they have to face so they are ready for the possibility of losing their speech and mobility.
“It’s a sensitive topic,” she said after the demonstration.
Often times if a patient is not diagnosed with ALS, it is harder for them to get insurance coverage for the expensive technologies, Hardy said.
Ingram said eye gaze technology can run from $15,000 to $20,000.
For those that cannot afford the high-tech eye tracking or who are not ready for the software, there are other, relatively low-tech options for speech and language assistance. Many of these technologies are available for the iPad, offering a quick and lightweight solution for users.
One of these apps is TalkRocket Go, a $100 text-to-speech iPad application that utilizes switch controls for users with mobility issues.
Tanja Kristic, public relations associate for MyVoice Inc, developer of TalkRocket Go, said in an email that this is a feature that sets this particular app apart from its competitors.
“Anyone using a wheelchair and buttons or switch controls can talk out loud with less effort,” she said. “Before MyVoice and its peers, communication aids were difficult to operate, and would cost up to $20,000 putting them out of reach for most people in need.”
TalkRocket Go recently released a College Life Pack addition to their app. This addition is intended to aid university students in day-to-day speech related to the learning environment and communication with other students.
“Considered were what barriers (occupational therapists) assist with in making the environment more accessible to students, such as interaction with faculty when the student has difficulty communicating, access to food services, questions about accessible transportation and accessible housing,” Kristic said.
MyVoice, Inc, EyeTech and PRC are making communication easier for those who have lost their voice and ASU’s Speech and Language Clinic is making access to these revolutionary technologies and many others easier for students and the community.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @karenlosch