Overview: Important Issues for Researchers and Practitioners Using Computer Synthesized Speech as an Assistive Aid

Overview: Important Issues for Researchers and Practitioners Using Computer Synthesized Speech as an Assistive Aid

John W. Mullennix (University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, USA) and Steven E. Stern (University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-725-1.ch001
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A brief overview of the current research topics and future directions of research in the area encompassing CSS as used in augmentative and alternative communication for people with speech impairments. Issues that are especially important for practitioners who work with people with speech impairments are mentioned. This overview presents an integrated vision of research where practitioners need to be apprised of the latest research and technological developments and where researchers need to solicit feedback from practitioners in order to pursue fruitful future directions for research.
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Stephen Hawking is the most famous theoretical physicist of our generation. He is best known for books such as A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, and On the Shoulders of Giants, as well as hundreds of publications on topics related to theoretical cosmology, quantum gravity, and black holes. It is common knowledge that Dr. Hawking has suffered for over 40 years from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. As a result of this disorder, Dr. Hawking lost the ability to speak many years ago. As he describes it:

The tracheotomy operation removed my ability to speak altogether. For a time, the only way I could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter, by raising my eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. It is pretty difficult to carry on a conversation like that, let alone write a scientific paper. (Hawking, 2009)

Eventually, Dr. Hawking was put into contact with developers working on early versions of speech synthesizers for use by people with speech impairments. Dr. Hawking describes the apparatus he adopted for use:

… David Mason, of Cambridge Adaptive Communication, fitted a small portable computer and a speech synthesizer to my wheel chair. This system allowed me to communicate much better than I could before. I can manage up to 15 words a minute. I can either speak what I have written, or save it to disk. I can then print it out, or call it back and speak it sentence by sentence. Using this system, I have written a book, and dozens of scientific papers. I have also given many scientific and popular talks. They have all been well received. I think that is in a large part due to the quality of the speech synthesizer… (Hawking, 2009)

Dr. Hawking started out using a system controlled with a hand switch that allowed him to choose words by moving a cursor through menus on a computer. Later modifications involved infrared beam switches that respond to head and eye movements. For many years, Dr. Hawking was satisfied with the “voice” provided by his Speech Plus™ synthesizer. However, a few years ago Dr. Hawking had a change of heart and decided to upgrade his speech synthesizer to one marketed by Neospeech™ that outputs a more realistic and natural sounding voice (www.neospeech.com/NewsDetail.aspx?id=50).

The story of Stephen Hawking is a heartwarming and uplifting story for many reasons, one of which, of course, is the triumph of human will and spirit over difficult circumstances. For those of us who research and develop speaking aids or who work with clients using speaking aids, however, his story offers great encouragement because it illustrates how a severe speech impairment can be dealt with through computer technology. Dr. Hawking has faced the same obstacles and issues that numerous persons with speech impairments have encountered when they have decided to adopt a computer-based speaking aid. Dr. Hawking has firsthand knowledge of some of the limitations of this technology and he has participated in the same decision processes that many people with speech impairments go through when they decide whether to update their speaking device or not. So in many respects, his story stands as a good example illustrating some of the major issues surrounding the use of computer-based speaking aids.

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