The Current

Meet the woman who saved Stephen Hawking's voice, and then gave the technology away to those in need

Stephen Hawking's achievements raised awareness for people whose disabilities limit their ability to communicate, but access to those technologies remains out of reach for many.
Lama Nachman, right, worked with Stephen Hawking on upgrading the systems he used to communicate. The hardware for his voice was so old that it was in danger of failing at any time. (Intel )

Read Story Transcript

When Lama Nachman met Stephen Hawking in 2011, she was given one clear instruction: do not change his voice.

Her task, leading a team of researchers and engineers, was to work with Hawking on upgrading the computer system which helped him to communicate.

"Initially I was in awe of the fact that I'm talking to one of the most brilliant people on Earth," Nachman, director of the anticipatory computing lab at Intel Corporation, tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"You realize all the challenges that he goes through... and how much he really has to work hard every single day, to just get his thoughts out to the world."

Hawking, who died last week after living much of his life with a motor neuron disease, lost his voice after a tracheotomy in 1985.

A year later, he adopted the computer system that would give him his unmistakable voice.

His condition, and the technology he used to overcome it, changed over the decades, and by 2011 the technology that assisted him was in need of an overhaul.

The astrophysicist lost his voice in 1985, and feared for the work he was so passionate about. 0:22

Saving his voice

Initially, Nachman and her team were asked to improve the speed at which he could communicate, but that was just the start.

The hardware that supported his voice was so old there were fears it might fail at any time.

Newer computerized voices had become available in the intervening decades, but Hawking wanted to keep the one he had.

He strongly felt the voice he gained in 1986 was his own — so much so that he had it copyrighted.

As they developed the new software, she says "he was actually able to figure out if that voice did not actually match exactly the hardware voice that he had."

"In everything that we've developed, that was a big no-no," Nachman says. "We could not change anything about the software voice."

Developing assistive technology has to be tailored very specifically to an individual's needs.

Stephen Hawking got his distinctive computer-assisted voice in 1986. It became such a part of his identity that he had it copyrighted. (Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

But Hawking asked the team to make sure the work they did for him could be used by others.

"One of the things that Stephen was very clear about was that he wanted that technology to enable others," she says.

"He wanted us to open-source the technology."

Nachman's team developed a tool kit that could meet Hawking's needs, but also be easily reconfigured, so other users could trigger devices in different ways, or have a different user interface, or a different output voice.

The response has been strong, she says, including from developers who wanted to create versions in different languages. The kit is now available in French, Spanish and Portuguese.

"That's kind of the power of the open-source community, because they can really bring that to the people," she says.

Melody-Anne Arbeau and her mum Valerie (Michael O'Halloran/CBC)
Melody-Anne, 15, has cerebral palsy and lives in Calgary. She uses a computer-generated voice to communicate with her family. 3:16

Canadian funding problems

Nachman's work with Hawking has increased access to technology for people with disabilities, but finding and affording the right technology is still difficult for many people.

In Canada, it's not a level playing field, says Gary Birch, as funding can vary from province to province.

Birch is an electrical engineer and the executive director of the Neil Squire Society, a national not-for-profit whose aim is to empower Canadians with disabilities through the use of technology.

"[People need to] have the funding to go out, and not just get the assistive technology, but get the expert help to trial and utilize the assistive technologies that best work for them."

This is even before the cost of buying the devices, he points out, or the necessary cost of having them tailored to individual needs.

In 1975, when Birch was 17, he was in a car accident that left him a c6 quadriplegic.

"Although I have some use of my arms I really don't have any use of my hands or my fingers," he says, "so I've always had some challenges to interface with technology myself."

Jeff Moulins has cerebral palsy and has tried different types of technologies over the years, but nothing has ever really worked. 4:13

When he began to work in the field of assistive technology in the 1980s, he hoped to create devices that could be directly controlled by brainwaves.

While we're not seeing devices like this in every home just yet, Birch says it's still a dream worth pursuing — if companies can be convinced to invest.

"Typically when you're developing these technologies, the market for a particular solution could be very small — so small it's hard to get the cost down," he says.

It can be frustrating, he says, to see people walking around with smartphones — a very complicated piece of technology that is relatively affordable — while simpler, assistive devices remain prohibitively expensive for people who really need them.

Solving that problem, he says, will introduce people with disabilities to a world of opportunity.  He thinks companies should see it as an investment in people.

"It's not a cost, because what you're doing is you're empowering these individuals to take part in our society, whether it be in the workforce or other ways."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Jessica Linzey.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.