MyVoice, recently launched for iPad and Android, has opened a whole new world for users like Tyler Austin, an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy. The state-of-the-art app enables Tyler to express his thoughts and feelings out loud for the very first time.
Previously, although Tyler (photo, far left) was intelligent, he was almost completely nonverbal; it was extremely difficult to understand what he was saying. Like many people who have cerebral palsy or other conditions such as autism, brain cancer, stroke, or traumatic brain injury, he had to communicate using a rudimentary letter board. It was frustrating and upsetting for Tyler, to say the least. But after 20 minutes of playing with MyVoice on the iPad, he was able to order a coffee for his mom from the hospital coffee shop.
The device has unlocked a world of independence for Tyler.
The iPad was generously donated to Tyler by the nonprofit organization, Ability Online, and the software was donated by MyVoice.
The app was co-created by Aakash Sahney (photo, far right) and Alex Levy, both engineering students at the University of Toronto's Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab. They were inspired to develop MyVoice after learning about the challenges that people with speech and language problems face. Technologies available to help were tremendously unpopular, expensive (up to $15,000), bulky and had difficult interfaces. "They were so difficult to use that people using them spoke at average rates of only eight words per minute," says Sahney. Levy and Sahney set out to create something that was powerful, affordable, easy to use, inexpensive ($189), customizable, attractive, and usable on socially relevant hardware.
Sahney and Levy also wanted to create an app that would make an impact. "A lot of apps available these days are very interesting, but often can't change people's lives the way MyVoice can. I think it's important that people with disabilities get first-class apps for the various challenges they face," Sahney explains.
MyVoice is the world's first location-aware communication aid. This means it is able to suggest the right vocabulary to the user based on where they are. For example, if a user is at the movie theatre, MyVoice may suggest words like 'large popcorn, please!,' 'tickets,' or 'seats.' If the user is at their favourite coffee shop, MyVoice could suggest their favourite coffee order. "Location-awareness can help dramatically speed up communication by reducing the time users spend searching for the right words for the situation," adds Sahney.
The app is now used by 12,000 people with communication challenges around the world. While the app was originally developed for the elderly, it was soon embraced by young people and children. "Very early on, we didn't expect so many children to be using MyVoice. Since learning about our younger users, we've made several improvements to the app just for them," says Sahney. "At this point, more than half of our users are children with various challenges."
For Sahney, hearing how MyVoice has genuinely helped people is one of the most rewarding experiences he has ever known: "We had a mother write us a letter once telling us how her son, a nonverbal child on the autism spectrum, told her he loved her for the first time using MyVoice." And Tyler's mom, Pamela Austin (photo, middle), wrote on the Ability Online website "This will really... enhance his future tremendously. Thank you so kindly for answering Tyler's prayers."