ELDRIDGE, Calif. — Myra Taylor touches the plastic box fastened to her wheelchair. "How are you?" she asks. "I feel happy today." In the wheelchair next to her, Michael Darlack leans over his box and announces, "I hate to wait."
The messages are different, but the electronically synthesized voice that says them is not. It is, in fact, produced by the SonomaVoice, a portable box that talks in sentences at the touch of a button. Taylor and Darlack each have one; because of their disabilities, they cannot speak for themselves.
The voice box was developed by Bob Russell, a psychiatric technician and director of communications engineering at the Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen.
No Money in It
He began working on it when he realized that although the technology existed, no one else was about to come up with a commercial product that would work for the most severely disabled because there's no money in it.
In the early 1980s, after the price of speech synthesis dropped from $7,000 to $70 when inexpensive microchips were introduced, Russell had high hopes that a cheap voice synthesizer would hit the market. Existing devices, which cost $3,000 and up, can be too expensive for the severely disabled, who often have little or no income, and also are too complicated for them to use.
"I was really expecting commercial products to become available," he said. "I decided to do it myself when that didn't happen."
It didn't happen, he explained, because even with the cheaper chips, "You could go broke trying to do this as a commercial enterprise. These folks are not a large consumer group, plus the range of their needs is tremendous."
When he started thinking about the SonomaVoice, Russell was working at the Sonoma Developmental Center as a qualified mental retardation professional and teaching basic nursing skills to psychiatric technician students. Computers and electronics were a hobby. He said he began by "visualizing the most difficult people to design for because those were the least likely to be commercially served." His goal was to design something inexpensive, easy to use and maintain, and capable of being customized for its users.
Up to 256 Phrases
The standard box has 16 keys that operate at four levels, giving the user 64 phrases. With the addition of a shift key option, the SonomaVoice can speak up to 256 phrases. Maximum message length is 61 phonetic sounds. Average cost is $350.
The boxes are individually made for their users, who choose what they want them to say. If they want to change them later, new phrases can be put on a replacement chip. The five-pound box can be held on the user's lap or mounted on a wheelchair, and runs on rechargeable batteries.
The keyboard has large, circular keys, each about the size of a silver dollar. They are covered with removable graphics, which represent the phrase that will be spoken when the key is pressed. A different set of graphics can be inserted for each level, so an individual might start out the day with, say, a sheet of drawings representing "at-home vocabulary, then shift to out-and-about vocabulary and then to school graphics," Russell said.
A sample sheet of shopping graphics has drawings of a variety of clothing items as well as symbols for small, medium and large; for ordering at a fast-food restaurant, a sheet of drawings of a hamburger, a sack of French fries, a cola drink and the like can be inserted.
"How complicated it is depends on the sophistication of the user," Russell said. "It all comes out of somebody knowing the person and what works for him."
Myra Taylor has help from Leslie Cobb, a speech and language pathologist who made the drawings for her voice box. Now Taylor can ask to have her nails polished or her hair braided, suggest renting a movie or simply affirm "I don't like vegetables very much."
Not all the messages are sunny. Michael Darlack, who uses a wand attached to a headband to operate his SonomaVoice, has one that says "I want to be alone." Russell said that sometimes, when the phrases are selected by the user's family without consultation with professionals, "there's nothing negative, like 'Get out of here. I don't need you.' " But no one can be cheerful night and day; so Russell said, "We have begun sending out letters giving examples of what other people have ordered" to nudge people toward including negative sentences.
People who use a SonomaVoice may have developmental handicaps, cerebral palsy, speech impairment following a stroke or some other condition that affects verbal communication. To date, they range in age from 2 1/2 to 79.
"Getting someone going at a very young age will be real interesting," Russell said. "Very likely, initially it will be a toy, but it should make a significant difference later, when a more sophisticated device will be more appropriate. It means (the child) can start generating speech right away."
'Powerful Learning Tool'