App gives voice to people with disabilities

Thousands of people around the world with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, aphasia and Parkinson's are now using MyVoice, a state-of-the art communication technology developed by two University of Toronto students.

MyVoice offers independence and reduces stigma

Tyler Austin uses the MyVoice app on his iPad to help him converse. The state-of-the art communication technology assists people with disabilities like cerebral palsy, autism and muscular dystrophy to express themselves. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

Tyler Austin is one of thousands of Canadians who can now speak, thanks to MyVoice, a new technology developed by two University of Toronto students.

Tyler, 18, is from Toronto and has cerebral palsy, which affects his muscle control and makes it difficult for him to speak. Until now, he had to depend on pointing to a few words on a board on his wheelchair to express himself.  It was frustrating for everyone.

"He would throw things on the ground, he would get upset because he could not communicate what he wanted to say," his father, Eric Austin says.

But now a state-of-the-art application on his new iPad has opened up a whole new world, allowing him to independently express his own thoughts and feelings verbally and do things for himself.

Tyler taps the tablet, which highlights the words and sentences. Then he's talking through MyVoice.

"I will go to camp this summer," the synthetic voice says. "I will be able to use my iPad to communicate with my mom and I will mount my iPad on my chair so I will be able to use it comfortably."

More than 12,000 users world-wide

Alex Levy, MyVoice co-creator, says the app is not only allowing people to speak but helping them overcome the social isolation often associated with disabilities. ((Courtesy Andrew Rusk))

MyVoice is the brainchild of University of Toronto students, Alex Levy, 25, and Aakash Sahney, 22. They came up with the idea two years ago as part of their work in the University of Toronto’s Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab.

Now it’s being used by more than 12,000 people around the world on iPads, iPhones and android devices.  Users include young people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism and muscular dystrophy as well as elderly people affected by strokes, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, aphasia or other conditions.

Until now, technology to help those with disabilities communicate usually meant heavy, clunky machines which were expensive, often costing thousands of dollars.  MyVoice costs $189, a one-time fee that offers customized set up, lifetime support and upgrades and one-on-one support to help users customize it for their individual needs. 

'Having an iPad and being a young kid with a speech disability, you go from being maybe the most ostracized kid in the class to being the coolest kid in that class.'—Aakash Sahney, MyVoice co-founder

 "There are millions of people who have been silent for so long," explaines Levy, 25, who is now doing postgraduate work on the technology.  He says MyVoice is not only allowing people to speak but helping them overcome the social isolation often associated with disabilities.

"Having an iPad and being a young kid with a speech disability, you go from being maybe the most ostracized kid in the class to being the coolest kid in that class," adds Sahney.

Vocabulary prompted by GPS tracking

Users can create endless categories and pre-program information,  then just tap to play it. They can also write and communicate on the fly by downloading vocabulary from the internet. But what makes MyVoice unique is its ability to use GPS data to generate vocabulary based on its location.

MyVoice co-founder Aakash Sahney is finishing his engineering degree at the University of Toronto this year. (MyVoice)

"You can tag different places that are important in your life and you can associate any vocabulary you want with them. So if you were at a movie theatre you might want to talk about popcorn, seats and movies," says Sahney.  "What My Voice can do is say, ‘hey, you’re probably at the movie theatre and here is some vocabulary that you can use.’  And that can help to hugely speed up communication because you don’t have to hunt around."

MyVoice has already garnered a lot of attention. The inventors received a $50,000 research grant from Google and a $2,500 prize from the Ontario Centres for Excellence. 

"We have just been overwhelmed with how enthusiastic people are," says Levy, adding they were getting requests for the technology even when it was in the development stage.

Creates independence

Tyler Austin has been quick to put his new technology to good use. Recently he went into a Tim Horton’s and used MyVoice to independently place an order for himself and his mother, Pamela.

She says Tyler is now using it to search the internet and email friends. He’s also using the camera function to create his own photo gallery of contacts and to create files to communicate with others.

Pamela and Eric Austin say the MyVoice app offers their son Tyler opportunities to become more independent. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

"He explores every single possibility there is that he can access with that device, he goes to spiritual programs, he watches different interviews, he goes to play games and use Yahoo," she says. "He can input and do it all himself."

She expects MyVoice will open a new world for of independence for Tyler.

"Things like money management and how to shop and pay for things and go to the bank," says Austin. "He can go to the teller and we can stand back and he can call for what he wants."

Immediate Impact

Back in their lab, Levy, who’s now a graduate student, and Sahney, who’s finishing his engineering degree this year, are constantly working on improving the app. That includes new male and female synthetic voices, new graphics, new layouts for those with visual impairments and better accessibility features for those with low-level motor controls. 

 "We’re blessed to be able to work on something like this. There are a lot of people who will work on so-called start-ups, say Facebook for Dogs or something like that," he says in an interview with CBC News. "They are doing things that are interesting but aren’t going to have an impact on other people’s lives.

"The stuff that we do everyday materially changes the lives of thousands of people and to know there could be just another person out there that’s having an awesome day, talking like we are talking, engaging in a way they haven’t before, there isn’t a greater satisfaction that I can imagine."