A current hot topic in the assistive technology arena is voice banking. Voice banking is the process of digitally saving your voice for future use on a speech generating device (SGD). Individuals who may lose their voice due to motor neuron disease or ALS can consider saving their voice before it is gone. This way, when they eventually lose their natural speaking voice, they can communicate on their SGD using a synthesized voice that sounds much like their own. This banked voice will mirror much of the warmth, prosody and inflection of their human voice. While voice banking is not mandatory, some people will prefer to communicate in a voice that reflects their own, rather than using a generic, robotic-sounding voice that speaks by default on their SGD.

How is voice banking done?
Speech pathologists and clinical professionals educate patients, upon receiving a diagnosis, that voice banking is an option for future communication. There are several websites and companies that offer voice banking services, and individuals are encouraged to research and find the best option for them. While the individual still has their voice, they record thousands of words and sentences to a computer software. Using principles of speech science, these recordings are converted into a synthetic voice which mirrors many characteristics of the original, unique human voice. This synthesized voice is then downloaded onto a SGD for the person to use for daily communication.

If the opportunity for banking one’s own voice has passed, sometimes a family member (e.g., a brother or sister) will bank their voice on behalf of their loved one. Similarly, some voice banking software companies are actively collecting a library of donated voices from healthy volunteers from which individuals can choose. While using a donated voice may be a good route for some SDG users, others desire to speak in a voice that is truly their own.

Why not just use the default, computerized voice on a SGD?
Simply put in three words: Quality of Life. As caregivers and professionals serving those who have received a diagnosis of a terminal illness, one of the few factors we can actively focus on is the patient’s quality of life.

Author Steve Heronemus, in his Book, Shells: Sustained by Grace Within the Tempest, [1] discusses the impact the loss of his voice had on him and his family: “Once my [SGD] arrived, I had to decide which of the 5 to 10 male voices to claim as my own. The options all sounded so clinical and uninspiring—Mike 16, Bob 2, and the like…The voice I chose is neither romantic nor Hollywood-esque; it is mechanical and not my own. My individual voice is still a loss all of my family grieves.” (p. 62).

Furthermore, people with ALS, their spouses and professional team describe how voice banking has impacted their lives in NPRs 2014 radio segment, “For Those Unable to Talk, A Machine That Speaks Their Voice” [2]:
“ALS is really a relentless march toward disability and death. But [voice banking] lets people snatch something back from it.” –Roberta Kelly, speech-language pathologist
“It’s almost like preserving a piece of [myself.] I’ve taken auditory pictures of who I am.” –Carl Moore, person with ALS.

Carl’s SGD may look like a chunky tablet computer, with a default voice to match, but now instead it will sound like Carl, giving him an empowered voice to use for daily participation in life. Daily participation with an empowered voice is one small way to drastically increase quality of life.
As voice banking gains increased attention and coverage by media outlets, we can see the human impact this technology provides. In a video segment by CBS 13 news (WGME Portland, Maine) [3], we learn the story of John Gregoire’s life with ALS. John and his wife, Linda, are seen in the moment that John’s new personalized voice “wraps itself around [them], giving them a piece of something they thought they had lost forever.” Tears of joy accompany exclamations of “That sounds like you!” See the touching news report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtBaU9hKFvs

What is a hot topic now among professionals in the assistive technology field still needs to become common knowledge among individuals and families touched by ALS and motor neuron disease. Unfortunately, by the time families come seeking the Eyegaze Edge communication device, their loved ones have often already lost their voice due to the progression of the disease. One a voice is lost, the window of opportunity to bank the voice has passed. There is a clear need for increased education about the availability of this amazing technology and its potential to empower individuals using SGDs. Voice banking provides dignity in continued use of a SGD and a vocal legacy for spouses and children after their loved one is gone. It provides an empowered voice to match an individual’s unique personality, allowing them to retain a piece of themselves that the disease cannot take away.

Footnotes:
1. Heronemus, S. (2014). Shells: Sustained by Grace within the Tempest. Middletown, DE: Author
2. “For Those Unable to Talk, A Machine That Speaks Their Voice.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio, Washington DC, 25 Feb. 2014.
3. CBS 13 News. “Man with ALS Receives Customized Voice From Vocalid.” Online video clip. www.youtube.com, 23 Dec, 2015. Web. Accessed 3 April, 2017.