Device helps stroke victims communicate

Device helps stroke victims communicate – Technology

Students in an upper-level computer software engineering class at the University of Buffalo (N.Y.) are helping to solve a real-world problem–and restore a sense of independence to persons with speech and motor disabilities–by designing augmentation communication devices. The students have produced UB Talker, a laptop computer with a touch-screen interface and synthetic voice that helps its users communicate–and is available in models for both adults and children.

The project began in March, 2002, when senior students were asked by Kris Schindler and Michael Buckley, lecturers in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to design a speech-enhanced, computer aid that would allow David, a 43-year-old nursing home resident who had suffered a stroke 20 years earlier, to communicate. “David can’t speak; he’s in a wheelchair and has very limited motor skills,” says Schindler. “Mentally, he’s no different than you or I–it’s just very hard for him to communicate. He has a sheet of paper and communicates by pointing out letters and letter groups. It’s frustrating and very time consuming.”

Unlike typical commercial products, the UB Talker features phrase prediction–frequently used words and phrases stored in the computer–and it is time sensitive. If David wants to go to lunch and begins typing that, a list of phrases appears on the screen before he even has completed the task, and he can finish the thought with one or two clicks or touches. Entire phrases are stored in the computer according to the time of day they are most likely to be used, eliminating tedious and repetitious typing. “If you’re talking about food at eight in the morning, it knows you’re talking about breakfast,” notes Buckley. One of the unique and useful features of the device is its story, or lecture, mode, which allows users to participate in more natural, give-and-take conversations. When David was testing the device, he could input questions, comments, or conversation topics into the laptop before the UB students arrived and play those comments either one at a time and wait for their response, or play them all at once.

“If he knew we were coming in that day and wanted to tell us there were certain things that were not working with the Talker, or certain things that needed to be changed, he could put these phrases in the lecture mode and when we arrived he wouldn’t have to construct the phrases;” explains Buckley. One of the goals for the child Talker, he adds, is for a user to be able to “speak” a phrase in three clicks or less. “Three clicks and you’ve got lunch:”

In fact, on the day David first received the UB Talker, he called Buckley at home. “I couldn’t be there when they delivered the computer to David. Late that night the phone rings and there’s this robotic voice … talking to me. David had it programmed in the lecture mode. He said, ‘I’m new at using the device so it’s going to take me a little time to [do this].’ He hadn’t spoken on the phone in 20 years….”

The Talker restores a sense of freedom and independence to its users. “It’s a quality-of-life issue;” he emphasizes. “It restores relationships.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Society for the Advancement of Education

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group