Phenomenology Online

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The Experience of Speaking Through a Machine

Kathy Howery

First Words

With power compelling,

Mind triumphs,

Quiet thunder,

God, men hear words.

Silent, I am

no more!

(Creech, 1992, p. 70)

The author of this poem has never spoken a single intelligible word of through his own lips, yet he speaks passionately of the compelling power of the spoken word.  He does so with a machine.


Most of us take the ability to speak utterly for granted. To speak, to have a voice.  To be understood by other through the use of our voice. From the time we are very young children our primary means of communication is through speech. We easily and effortlessly produce meaningful sounds through the mouth by controlling the expulsion of air. But our experience of speaking is hardly that of speech production. Merleau- Ponty suggests when we speak we do not think about speaking, rather if we think at all, we think about what we are saying. We must, in fact, stop picturing the code or even the message to ourselves, and makes ourselves sheer operators of the spoken word (Merleau- Ponty , 1964, p. 18). While this rings true for those of us who speak with our natural voices, it hardly seems the case for people who speak with a machine.


First I think what to say, then I input the words into my device.  Once I have constructed my message, I push send so that I can speak those words out loud.


Machines that produce speech for people with disabilities are referred to as Voice Output Communication Devices (VOCAs) or Speech Generating Communication Devices (SGCDs).  They are computer-based devices that change text, the written word, into speech, the spoken word.  Each act of speaking must be composed first through text or through images that represent text then spoke as another act.  The experience of speaking with a machine is first message construction, then message delivery.  The process can hardly be considered as merely the operation of speech.  The message is composed by the human being; the speech is produced by the machine.


When explaining these devices to most people they say,  “oh like Stephen Hawking”.  And yes, Dr. Hawking, the eminent physicist speaks with a SGCD.  He has a progressive neurological disease that has taken away his ability to speak with his natural voice.  He has made many media appearances, including even of late the popular television show The Simpson’s.  People have come to hear the computer-generated voice he uses as the voice of Stephen Hawking.   Interestingly, the impression one is left with when listening to Dr. Hawking speak on TV or other media is that he is able to carry on real time conversations with his device.  In reality this is not the case.  His speeches are mostly pre-stored, leaving the impression that he is speaking much like you or I could when delivering them. But, in instances where already composed messages will not work, such as having a conversation in real time, speaking for Dr. Hawking, like any person who speaks with a machine, is in reality, a tedious drawn-out process.  This was illustrated in a recent TED Talk video where it took Dr. Hawkings seven minutes to compose a two-sentence answer to a question.


I have spent much of my adult life working with people for whom natural intelligible speech is difficult or impossible to produce. These are people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy (CP) that affect their abilities to control their oral motor or breathing muscles. Rick, the author of the introductory poem has CP. For Rick producing intelligible speech, even after years of intensive speech therapy is impossible.  For others like Dr. Hawking, the power of speech, their voice, has taken away due to progressive motor or neural diseases such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Until the  1980s, these people would have to communicate through non-speech means or through the speech of others.  Today, computer based technologies provide the opportunity of voice.


I accepted as fact that only people who were familiar to me could understand my speech.  Then this doctor told me about computers that can talk.  That’s how for the first time I heard about augmentative communication.  And the hope that was planted in me that I could become INDEPENDENT. If I wanted to talk to somebody, I would no more have to wait for my mom or my brother to come to “translate” for me or to try and talk myself and wonder I if the other person really understands me or just pretends to.


Imagine being dependent upon others to understand your thoughts, needs, and desires without a voice to express yourself.  Imagine being dependent on others to speak for you.   What might it be like to find hope in emerging technologies that might allow you to talk for yourself?

Then consider using that technology such that in order to speak to your friends or family you had to type out everything you wanted to say and push “speak” to give voice to your thoughts.  Consider this doing this while they continued to be able to converse with ease and speed that we all take for granted.  Such is the experience of even the most competent VOCA user.


But then imagine the alternative. What is it to be unintelligible? How would you order a cup of coffee? Phone a friend? Share your ideas at school or work? Tell your parents you love them?   Not being able to express your thoughts, feelings and needs to your fellow human beings.  Not being able to use your voice to communicate.  To be dependent on others to interpret your thoughts and to speak for you.  To have no voice. The VOCA, with all its challenges can be a liberator.  Indeed one of the more complex of these devices is thus named, The Liberator.


When I got my “Libby” my dad and I stared to share things that we couldn’t before.   We could talk about baseball, the Dodgers, and who can forget about basketball and the Arizona Wildcats?  We were finally having father and son conversations, just like the other fathers and sons were having since the beginning of time.


Liberated to have a real conversation.  To be doing what people have been doing since before recorded time, to engage in talks, chats, dialogues… conversations.  I have watched many VOCA users over the years, both those who have been liberated and those who struggle.  I have watched in amazement as a twelve-year-old boy who speaks with his VOCA take control of the room by interjecting “excuse me I am not finished yet – I have more to say”. And I have watched in despair as a teenage girl desperate to “fit in” in her junior high struggles to get a few words spoken with her device as their classmate walk away carrying on a conversation that moves too quickly and to dynamically for her to participate in.  I watch but can I see?  I listen to them struggle to find their voice, but do I really hear?  What is the experience of having this technology mediated voice? What is it like to talk with a machine?



Participating in the ordinary

A person becomes tired of struggling for words that no one can understand, after a little while that person may stop talking.  For the longest time I thought I didn’t need a communication device that had some kind of mechanical voice that was almost as hard to understand as I was. Then I got the Liberator (VOCA)…  I can’t tell you how much it has changed my life. I was able to ask a neighbor to unlock and open my door.  Riding the bus with my friend Rosella, I noticed that her wheelchair was not properly fastened down, and I told the bus driver.  I can now hold talks with many of my bus drivers as we drive to work and back.  I can tell drivers how to find my apartment.  I can meet new people with confidence.  I can give input to the classes I attend.


So what is it like to talk with a machine?  At the most obvious it appears the technology gives the opportunity to make the once impossible possible. Of course it can be said that all technology. Every day we all have occasion to experience technologies that make what was at one time humanly impossible possible.  Technologies were indeed invented to do just that.  We experience the technology of the pen to capture words in a lecture on paper so that we don’t have to do the impossible task of remembering everything that said when we go back to study for an exam two weeks later.  We pull a book from a library and read the words spoken by a scholar some 100 years ago and can “hear” his words as they come to us from across the ages through the technology of print.  We can speak with someone across the world on the telephone or of late we can use Skype or iChat to make a video call and not only hear them but see them, live, in real time.  Human beings have created technologies to extend their experience beyond that which is humanly possible for centuries.  In fact that is what technology does, extended the possibility of human kind.


But there is something more about the technology that produces speech for the speech impaired.  The VOCA is  different. The VOCA enables the ordinary.  The ability to speak, to talk, to converse. This ability to communicate with speech is an essential human enterprise.  Human beings speak.  Speech is perhaps one of the most important things that sets us apart from other species us as humans. It is held that man, in distinction from plant and animal, is the living being capable of speech.  It means to say that only speech enables man to be the living being he is as man.  It is as one who speaks that man is – man. (Heidegger,1971,p. 189). Speech is the ordinary everyday activity of human life.  But speech is far more than uttering words aloud.  It is through speech that we reveal ourselves to others.  It is through speech that we connect.   Whether it is to give directions to a cab driver, to greet someone with a “hello, how are you?” or to voice concern for a friend in peril, it is through speech that we participate in the everyday acts of being in the world.  It is the talking to, with and about, that is so very ordinary.


With my new voice, my world began to open up. Finally connecting with people by spoken word. The first time I really saw the power of this was one day when I was with my sister in her back yard.  She was gardening.  Before, this would have meant that she gardened and talked, and I would watch and listen.  In order for me to share my thoughts beyond a few vocalizations and facial expressions she would have to come over so she could read what I was spelling on my letter board.  With the speech output device this all changed.

I was visiting her on a Saturday afternoon as I often did.  We went to the garden.  That day when she talked away as she always had asking me questions and looking for my smiles or nods she got a surprise – I talked back.  “Julie, what do you think of the gardenias I planted over there?” She looked up at me waiting for a smile or nod.  Instead I looked at to my device and began constructing an answer.  I can’t say what she did then because I was looking at the screen, but she didn’t talk, it seemed like she waited.  I typed in, “They are beautiful Kate, but I really like your roses best!” and pressed send.  I looked up at her.  My sister had stopped her gardening. She had put down her tools and was looking at me.  The expression on her face is hard to explain.  Part of it was shock.  I guess even though she knew I had this device and had heard me talking with it in the house, it was still a surprise to hear me speak to her like this. She was just so used to be being a silent partner in our interactions.  Then she smiled and said in a voice that suggested she valued my opinion, “okay, ya…you have a point, I suppose maybe I do too”.  And that was the beginning of our conversations across the garden. She bantering on about her garden, me putting my two cents in from a distance. A distance that we had never before been able to traverse.  I will never forget that time and how pleased she was that we could keep a conversation going across the garden.


This exchange between sisters illustrates many things about the power of human voice.  First that it can carry our thoughts to others.  Voice can communicate across distances in real time.  The sisters had been able to communicate before the VOCA was used but only in a limited fashion or when they were physically side-by-side.  This is a very narrow and limiting bandwidth. It seems delimiting for one and burdensome for the other.  With the VOCA the once impossible distance between the two sisters has disappeared. Both communication partners are now able to participate, one without being compelled to stop her activity to read and construct the message of the other.  And, the other, to have her thoughts, comments and opinions voiced and heard.


Merleau-Ponty tells us that the consequences of speech always exceeds its premises (M-P, 1964, p. 91). This exchange between sisters across the garden illustrates this beautifully.  The availability of speech enabled more than the mere exchange of words. The speech transformed their mode of being together.  The difference is evident in the way the speaking sister reacts with shock.  Her familiar way of being with her sister in silence is gone.  He role of controller of the one sided dialogue is diminished. The balance has shifted.   The two sisters are now together as joint participants in the creation of the dialogue.  With the availability of the two-way channel of sharing, the responsibility for the communication is shared.  Where there once was physical presence, there is now participation.


Such experiences of VOCA users have compelled some who work in the field to say that this technology levels the playing field.  The generation of speech puts VOCA users on the same level as people who can speak with their natural voices.  Indeed this is the hope.  That the technology will allow full participation in the ongoing discourse of life. The great hope for the experience of the everyday, enabled through speech.  The great hope of being in and joining with the great human dialogue.


Another way of being that we all hope to experience, is being in love.  The primary expression of that love comes through voicing our emotions and feelings to our beloved.  Many of us, on occasion, may seek the words of poets to declare to our love.


One of the first things I did when I got my device was to load the Shakespeare’s balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet into it.  I edited out all of Juliet’s lines.  Then I went to my future wife’s apartment, sat outside her second story window, and recited Romeo’s lines from the balcony scene.  When it became obvious that the mosquitoes would eat me alive before she would hear me, I went inside the apartment building and recited Romeo’s line.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The ability to recite a poem to the one you love.  To enact a scene from a classical love story and make it part of yours through the telling.  While this romantic enactment did not quite end up to be the scene as written, the possibility only existed because of the VOCA.  Without speech the balcony scene would never have been.  Without a VOCA the balcony scene could never have even been tried.


The ability to speak the words the words themselves, “I love you”, out loud.  The ability to shout to the world, I am in love!  The ability to come together through the social closeness made possible through speech. All of these lovely ways we use speech every day to connect as one of with our fellow man are most powerfully enabled by our voice.  This is what is given with a VOCA.  Certainly we can write love letters, and we do and these are special treasurers that we keep.  Certainly we can even communicate much with non-verbal language, and do. But without speech much on the nuance and intimacy of our delivery is lost. The moment and the feeling is captured in the saying. The saying that for some comes with only with the machine.


It is no small wonder that obtaining a VOCA can be a life-altering event.


On Sundays, my parents and I went to the church where my father pastured.  No one tried to converse with me.  How could anyone, since I didn’t have a way to converse back?

I did have a letter board that I could point to.  It worked well with people who would take the time to talk to me; not too many would.  To be fair, talking with a person who uses a letter board can be difficult.  Most people are unable to put letters together in their minds to form a word. They certainly cannot remember the words long enough to form a sentence (RC, p. 47)

That day when I got home from I read an issue of Popular Science. The course of my life, like a river meeting a mountain, was about to be altered and turned toward a new destiny.  In that issue, I read an announcement of the world’s first voice output communication aid.


A scant 20 years ago VOCAs did not exist.  Communication for people with unintelligible speech was possible, but limited.   Talking with text, sometime written down, sometimes only written in the mind of the hearer.  To converse with someone without voice was demanding and foreign.  As Merleau- Ponty suggests, it is an intolerable experience for those who speak to gaze upon one another without resorting to the ruse of speech to put a common domain of thoughts between them (Merleau- Ponty, 1964,p. 16).  And certainly the extra toil of holding the text of another’s conversation in one’s head as it is being silently spoken through written communication creates a nearly insurmountable hurdle for meaning to cross. The story of Christy Brown, the now famous artist and author comes to mind.  Christy grabbed chalk with the toes of his left foot and wrote letters announcing to the word that he had volumes to share.  But for Christy Brown there was no speech.  He was born too soon.  He spoke with the silent voice of text and image.


Eloquent as the written word can be, it remains limited in allowing full participation in the human world.  The silent voice is not the voice that one can use to call out to a friend, play hide and go seek or read a story to a child.  A spoken voice is necessary for full participation in human interaction.  With a VOCA there is voice.  For people who cannot speak clearly the invention of the machine that could produce speech changed everything. When Merleau-Ponty invokes the quote “Lost freedom will not be found except by being invented” (1964,p. 33)  it is hardly conceivable that he was imagining the lost freedom of expression through voice.  But is it? Is this the hope of where this invention may lead – to find the lost freedom of speech?  Has the invention of the VOCA also invented to possibility of freedom to fully participation in the all dimensions of human communication and participation?


Making my presence “heard”


I recall the day that Josie came into the centre for the first time.  She was coming to see about getting a VOCA.  Here was a seven year old little girl who’s eyes shone with expression but who had no speech. As we sat around the table discussing Josie’s needs for a device I grabbed one from the back room and started to program in a few phrases.  I then sat with Josie and modeled how the messages could be spoken aloud by touching the buttons.  I talked with Josie about things in the room using the VOCA.  “I like that” I said when pointing to the picture.  Then I pointed to a stuffed bear “that is a silly thing” I said with the device.  Josie watched me intently then she reached out for a message.  “I like that” she said, and giggled.  Then she pointed at the bird hanging from the roof “that is a silly thing” she said and giggled again.  She got it.  She knew what to do! She was talking with the machine.

I quickly programmed in another couple of phrases – “mom, look at me”, “mom come here” “go away”.  I pulled Josie away from the table for a few moments to show her the new messages that were there.  “mom look at me” she said with the device and looked at her mom to see if she was listening.  No response.  I whispered “try again Josie” and turned up the volume.  She did –  “mom look at me!” This time her mom heard. She looked up confused.  On cue Josie spoke again “mom look at me”.  And that is when the magic happened.  Her mom looked and Josie said “mom come here” with no prompting and giggled loudly.  Her mother, now practically at the point of tears, came over.  “mom look at me” said Josie.  “I am looking Josie!”  “go away” said Josie and she giggled again.  “go away”.  Her mother, rather shocked but sensing something important was happening followed along.  She walked away.  She got no more than a few steps away when “mom come here” was called out by Josie with the device.  “mom look at me”.  At this point we were all in tears.  The game went on for awhile longer: come, go, look….  Josie obviously immensely enjoying the power of her new voice.  With these simple words spoken with this simple device Josie had taken charge.  She had spoken!  And we were all compelled to listen.

What is the experience of a child who for the first time is given the ability to produce speech?  What is it for the parent to hear their child speak?  Most children develop spoken language in a relatively short period of time given the complexity of the system.  Children first begin to vocalize in ways illicit responses from their caregivers.  These vocalizations then morph to word approximations, to whole words that stand for a multitude of things and concepts, to simple sentences and finally to speech as we conceive of it in it’s full dimensions.  For most children speaking develops until as Merleau-Ponty suggest the child is finally swayed over to the side of those who speak (M-P, 1964, p. 41).  A child who cannot speak does not sway gently over to become a speaker.  They may come to understand that the sounds produce by others mean something, but their ability to participate in the production of the meaningful sound is thwarted. Given a VOCA, suddenly, that child has, albeit limited, the ability to act with the spoken word.


Josie was able for the first time, independently produce an intelligible utterance that acted not only to have her mother do something, but also acted to have her see something.  To see Josie as a child with a voice.  Josie was able to call, play, tease and connect with this voice.  Was it the first time her mother had understood Josie? Most certainly not.  Parents can understand their children without their children speaking.  This is certainly the case of parents whose children cannot speak.  They become interpreters of the myriads of ways that their children communicate.  But this time, for the first time, Josie spoke. And interpretation was not needed.  This time the message was clear, intentional and expressed in the typical way of humans.


And what is this when the experience for a child talking with a machine? For the first time from across the room, by herself, to be able to engage her mother to look at her, to listen to her, to play with her. Well for Josie it was delight.  Was this something of an awakening of herself perhaps?  A typical toddler fills the air with words? No, why, me, mine, go, out…They use these words to express themselves. Erikson tells us that this early time is when children express their autonomy (Miller, 2009). They do so largely through their newly acquired powers of speech.  Is the experience of talking with a machine the experience of a child discovering themselves as autonomous powerful beings?   With the power of voice Josie was able to get her mother’s attention and know by her response that she was heard.  She had the power of independent communication. She was seen and she was heard and we all knew it!


Revealing myself through speech

You know that people sometimes edit stuff in their brains before they say something, while other people just say what is on their mind. Before that day, I felt I had to edit what I was saying twice, once in my brain and secondly with my board in order to get people to understand what I am trying to say. That made me not feel free to say anything that I wanted. But on the day that I got my new device I finally felt free to say anything that I wanted. I felt that way because I could speak the words by myself. That not only gave me a sense of pride because I found more words than I ever imagined. I think people truly know me for the first time because I was not hiding a big part of myself like I was before.

The freedom to express oneself and to let oneself be expressed.  To translate what is in our heads and our hearts into expression that show who we are to the others.  The freedom to speak our thoughts aloud, to show ourselves.  Merleau-Ponty suggests even to know ourselves.  For the speaking subject, to express is to become aware of: he does not express for others but also to know himself what he intends (MP, 1964, p.90) When we speak we reveal ourselves, we even, perhaps, reveal ourselves to ourselves.  Is this what Sharlene experienced speaking with the machine? An new found freedom to reveal herself by finding her words.


I was talking to my mother and father and I felt for the first time I got to say what was actually on my mind, boy what that a great feeling that was! Not to have my words bottled up in my head.

It is interesting to think about what we recall about conversations.  Is it the actual words or is it the feelings of those words?  Is it that we ourselves were heard? In her memory of her conversation with her parents what is important to Sharlene is not the words themselves, she had forgotten those, but the fact that she was actually able to say them.  Her words, for the first time.


In order to do this, however, a device user must in reality seek, edit and then speak the words aloud.  Speaking with a machine is speaking by constructing text then speaking it.  This process is not the natural process of speaking.  Some people, as Sharlene suggests just speak what is on their minds. This may be what Merleau-Ponty (1958/2009) tells us when he states that through speech the speaker does not translate ready-made thoughts, but accomplishes it (MP, 1958/2009, p. 207).  In fact he argues, that a speaker may not even know what they think until they have spoken.  This seems familiar.  The idea that sometimes I don’t know what I think until I talk about it.  The clarity comes through the talking.  For Sharlene this opportunity remains illusive.  While she celebrates her new found freedom of expression, she still must be clear in her head what she is going to say before she says it.  She must search figuratively in her head and literally through the pre-stored vocabulary in the device, in order to produce the speech with her machine. Just as when we are writing an email, we must think first what we will say, then type the words to say it.   This is not how people who speak with their natural voice talk.   The speaking subject does not think of the sense of what he is saying, nor does he visualize words which he is using (MP, 1958/2009, p.209); the person speaking with a machine, it seems, must.


However, the experience of seeking words is not the exclusive domain of the VOCA user.  It is something we all struggle with from time to time.  Finding the right words. Searching through our mental lexicon for the right words. Sometimes the right words come with no effort at all as has been discussed.  Other times we can become stuck and not find words, not have the words or perhaps the right words may not exist at all. It is ironic that in many instances we find our words by talking through the gaps.  It is seldom that we stop a conversation and silently do a mental search.  Rather, fill our gap with words. “you know, like…, oh I just can’t think of it… it is on the tip of my tongue”.  These are our verbal strategies that help us find our words.  Verbal strategies that I have never heard used by a person speaking with a machine.  Their search is silent.


What is this silent searching really like? Linguists speak of lexical representations.  Our mental dictionary.  This is where we theoretically search for our words when they are on the tip of our tongue.  For the person who speaks with a machine, one might say the search is lexically layered. Most VOCAs have pre-stored words that the user can select instead of creating the word through exclusively text input.  Once can allude to these pre-stored words as representing the mental lexicon of the person using the device to speak.  But the storage of these words in the device is not often done by the user but rather by the programmer of the machine or as a part of the software that encodes the speech process.  So the search for the right words that we all experience is compounded by the secondary search of the machine based lexicon.  The experience of finding the “right” words, “my words” then is ever so much more remarkable. The experience of showing oneself by finding the words, one’s own words, in the machine and voicing them, is not only the experience of speaking, but perhaps also the experience of successful navigation an unfamiliar system that of language that we did not create.  No wonder that Sharlene is proud!


Silence made possible by speech

It’s not… that you’re saying something… the other person’s contributing something and it goes back and forth. (Locke, 1998, p. 55)

Conversation is defined as the informal interchange of thoughts and information by spoken words; oral communication between persons.  Therefore that implies conversation can not be engaged in without speech.  But surely that is not exactly true.  There are modes of conversation that do not involve spoken words. People who are deaf converse without spoken words – their speech is manual not oral. But their conversations are with others who speak with their hands not with their voices.  They are in the world of silent speech. Theirs is a jointly shared and mastered non-vocal conversational modality.  People with unintelligible speech due to physical impairment are most often in the world of spoken words, the world where interchange of thoughts is primarily through the everyday vernacular of the hearing world.  Perhaps then this is the singularly most important experience of talking with a VOCA – to allow one to have a real conversation.


It wasn’t until my sixth year at the university that I got my first AAC device.  Finally I was able to have real conversations with people whom I had always wanted to talk.  My father was one person that I had always wanted to have a conversation with, but there was always a barrier.  Now that barrier was broken!

We were able to talk about women, not that we would do something like that mind you! And about all the beers we had the night before at the football game, without my mother knowing what we really did!  Now we could have our little secrets that would drive my mother nuts!

These days I find myself having meaningful conversations with my nieces, talking to them about school, life, what they are thinking and, of course, joking and teasing them about boys!  But most important they respect and value my opinion and even ask for my advice on occasion.


A secondary definition of conversation suggests it is about the ability to talk socially with others: She writes well but has no conversation. John Locke, in his book “Why we don’t talk to each other anymore: the devoicing of society” brings to light some of the ways that humans engage in what he calls intimate social conversations.  This involves gossiping, sharing secrets, chatting.  Sharing little things that are not about anything really, just about the connection. The connection made through face-to-face communication, through voice.


With the possible exception of looking at one another, talk is the purest and most sublimated form of two-wayness. ( Locke, 1998, p. 53)

In his discussion of conversation Gadamer challenges us to think of conversation not as something we conduct but rather as something that we fall into, or something we become involved in (Gadamer, 1989, p. 385). A conversation is not one-sided, it is an egalitarian venture where both parties have equal voice.  So how does speaking with a machine provide the opportunity for real conversations where none existed before?


I could talk to people providing they could read.  Even though my father understood English fairly well, he wasn’t able to read.  This caused a major breakdown in communication between us.

When I got my “Libby” my dad and I stared to share things that we couldn’t before.   We could talk about baseball, the Dodgers, and who can forget about basketball and the Arizona Wildcats?  We were finally having father and son conversations, just like the other fathers and sons were having since the beginning of time.


The experience of communication between someone who is using an aided system and one who is speaking appears not to fall to conversation.  It is lopsided and unbalanced.  It is encumbered by the demands placed on the other to encode and process the messages so that ultimately they are understood.  Perhaps this is something like the sense one gets when one’s speech is being translated to another language.  There is a tangible barrier created between the participants.  Of course constructing a sentence by pointing to a letter board is intralingual.  The “correctness” of the message is not called into question, as it may be if thoughts are being shared in a language one does not understand.  But the break in the conversation is evident nonetheless.  It is stilted, and broken.  One is beholden the to willingness, patience and literary interpretation skills of the other.


When one without voice is beholden to the translation of meaning by the other, such a conversation hardly can be described as something fallen into.  Without a voice with which to participate the demands on the listener become extraordinary.  As well, the balance of the conversation is off.   With a VOCA  one is equipped with the opportunity for conversation.  To converse with equal voice becomes possible.


And what else becomes possible? Ironically, the choice of silence.  The VOCA not only gives the opportunity of speech, but also the opportunity of selected silence.  Shared silence.  Equal choice of both communication partners to speak or to be silent.  How different is the experience of being silent when you have a voice. A real conversation one might consider involves the real choice to not talk.  Consider again Gadamer’s conversation.  The only true equal conversation can come if one has both power to speak and the power to remain silent.  The VOCA gives the power to deliberately accomplish both.


The voice of the machine… Is this my voice?

When I awoke from the surgery, my first reaction was that I must have not died because I was aware.  I could see and feel and hear things.  And if I were alive, I can see my wife and children again.  In a few days I would be back home, resting, perhaps lying in the sun.  Life would resume.

But I was considering my old life.  What I never really banked on was the fact that while I could still hear and understand what others were saying to me, there would be no more responding in kind.  For when the surgeon removed my cancerous larynx, my voice went with it.  Forever.

They had discussed this with me in advance of my surgery.  It was most l blur now, but I remember talking with several medical specialists, each telling me something about the operation and the recovery process.  One had mentioned the voice part, but it really hadn’t made any sense.  How can a surgeon take away your…your personality? (adapted from Locke, 1998, p. 21)

This is an experience of a man who had just realized what his new world would truly be. A world in which he has become a candidate for a VOCA, a person with much to say but no voice with which to say it.  It is as so clearly expressed a devastating experience.  In exploring the experience of talking with a machine thus far it would appear that with the enabling technology of a VOCA he may regain what he had lost – his voice could be given back through technology.   But, other accounts tell us, the experience the voice that is synthetic speech from a machine is much more complex. What is the experience of “my voice” when it is the voice from the machine?  Does it ever become “my voice”?


Consider the words of Colin who has lost ability to speak not through surgery but through the debilitating condition of ALS.  Colin speaks with a machine. With it he has much to convey about the experience of the synthesized voice.


Much of what I have had to say today is related not to speech, but to voice itself. I would ask you to reflect deeply on how we come to associate voice with identity. I have experienced this in a positive way, as people compliment me on my voice. I have heard from several physicians and speech pathologists that my voice suits me. This seemed initially to me to be somewhat preposterous. To me it is not my voice at all, but rather a tool that I employ to allow me to speak. But my family, friends, medical team and acquaintances have integrated the voice as a key part of my identity. In fact, my teenage daughter Lindsay is troubled when I change voices, or even when I correct some of the mispronunciations that she is used to and even has come to enjoy. I guess I am beginning to identify with the voice myself.  It is only natural to associate voice with identity, but I think the professionals doing, and guiding, research should be cautious about the flip side. Do you really hear the individuality of each speaker who uses the same voice?


A person is recognized by their voice.  It is perhaps as unique as a fingerprint and much more apparent to the world.  Our voice is our own.  Yet this is hardly the case for people using VOCAs.  There are but a handful of different “speech engines” available.  This means that essentially there are only a few voices to choose from.  Even the most advanced of the VOCAs have a limited selection of voices.


Interestingly for many of us when we hear voice of a VOCA we hear someone’s voice –  Stephen Hawking’s voice. So much so, that a recent radio commercial was able to use the synthesized voice not explicitly stating that it was Dr. Hawking but counting on the public identifying him as the speaker. Many other VOCA users in fact use the same “system voice” as Dr. Hawking.  Is it then that they have “his” voice?  How and when does it ever become the voice of the individual speaker?   What is it like to have a voice that you use, but not your own?


Perhaps we all have some sense of what it is not to recognize our voice as our own. We may have at one time or another, with the use of recording technologies, experienced hearing ourselves either on a tape recording or perhaps in an interview on the radio or television.  It is common to have the sense of “do I really sound like THAT?”  That is not the voice that I hear in my head when I speak.  That voice sounds strange.  But that voice, however foreign, is still uniquely our voice.  We may not recognize it ourselves, we may not even like it much when we hear it, but we never question really that it is ours.  And it is not that we recognize it as being someone else’s voice.  It is ours, we know, just mediated through a different channel.


Others can recognize us immediately by our voice.  On the telephone I can recognize almost immediately when my daughter is calling.  I can hear someone walking by my yard and recognize them by voice alone.  Voices tell is we are male or female.  Voices can tell our age, young children have higher pitch, older people have lower pitch.  Voices tell of our life experiences.  My father’s voice always had the trace of the “old country”.  His spoken words always with the harkening back to their German beginnings. Even a person’s stature can be called out by their voice.  The longer the vocal track the deeper the voice.  Occasionally we meet someone we have only heard speak, and the voice doesn’t “match” our imagination of them.  Our voice speaks of us beyond our words.  This speaking may be muted by the voice of the machine.


This is the first device that I have had that actually has a female voice. It makes a difference as to whether people will take the time to listen. With the other voice people didn’t connect it with me as a person.  When I used the male voice it was like thoughts were coming from the machine not from me as person.  Since I got the female voice people seem to understand it as my voice… I really feel like this is “my” voice.


Voices convey much about us.  It appears so does the voice of the machine.  Sharlene suggests that her personhood was passed over before her female voice. The machine was in the foreground; she was lost in translation. Voice matters. Sharlene has at least come closer to finding her voice as a woman. The importance of this presentation of herself should not understated.   But what of the rest of her, of her size, her life’s journey, her demeanor, her uniqueness? What is left unsaid when the voice is a machine?


Wait I have something to say!


First I have to think what to say, then I have to put it into my device, then I need to speak it out loud. When my message final gets voiced the conversation has typically move ahead three topics and it no longer makes any sense what so ever.


Speaking with a machine is an unnaturally slow process.  The rate at which people comfortably hear and vocalize words is about 150- 160 words per minute.  If a VOCA user could compose their messages at the rate at which an average professional typist can typically type that would be about half that rate at 70 to 80 words per minutes (Wikipedia).  But the reality is that most VOCA users can never hope to achieve speech anywhere close to that rate.   Indeed many can only speak at the rate of 5 or 6 words per minute.


Putting down the words of VOCA users in text does not convey the temporality of how they were delivered. When interviewing Sharlene for this project I timed some of her responses to my questions.   I asked her to tell me more about the experience talking with her parents.  The time she got to say the words bottled up in her head. Here is her verbatim response: That time I finally matured.  I understood it is not about the time it takes but what you say. Those 19 words took close to 4 minutes.  Four minutes of empty auditory space.  Space that between two typically speaking people would be not tolerated.  Space that could irrevocably disrupt a conversation.  How ironic then her words.  That her understanding of that was about her maturity was a wonder to me.  That somehow the failure was hers.  That it was she that was the problem, that she needed to change and grow up and accept.  Of course in one sense she was right.  Maturing and accepting our limitations if part of everyone’s life.   But for a person who has never been able to do something, to speak, and who gets the opportunity to do so – albeit in a tedious and less than generally acceptable fashion – is the gratitude for the chance to have a voice so great that any less than positive feelings are internalized?  Is the experience of the device user that the slow speech is their fault not of an inadequate machine?


I wanted to explore this myself. So I tried to speak only with a device myself one night in class.


I enter the class.  There are only a couple of people there so far which gives me chance to try this thing out. Amanda says hello.  I have posted on our class site that I am going to try to talk with a voice output communication device tonight, so I am hoping she has at least a bit of an idea what I am doing.  I smile at her, then look down at the screen and start typing my message back.  She seems bewildered, then she laughs, “oh you are going to be talking with a machine!”  My response to her hello is now irrelevant.  I start again.  “yes, I am going to try to …” but by the time I get that far she has started a conversation with Matt across the room.


I walk to my spot on the other side of the room and decide I better say some “quick messages” to see if that might work better.  I start by typing “tonight I am going to talk with this device”.  Okay I will store that.  Next I think I should store something about waiting –  “it will take me a bit to respond to you, please wait”.  Store.

Now Matt has asked me something.  I am not really sure what, as I am a bit distracted by trying to store messages that I think I might need.  Okay so I select a stored message.  “Oh”, a smile.  Then Amanda says something else from across the room.  I try to answer her, but the volume on doesn’t go loud enough.  I have it cranked right up.  “I can’t hear you.” she says.  I hold the device up to see if that helps, but even though this is not a particularly loud environment I cannot make it loud enough to be heard.

Another couple of classmates enter and say hello.  I try again.  There it is, that rather befuddled look.  Or is it amusement I am not sure.  Amanda pipes in, “she is talking with a machine tonight”.  I am grateful that she did actually.  It saves me from trying again to be heard. My classmates engage in the usual pre-class banter.  There are conversations going on all around me.   There is no way I can begin to keep up.

I feel exhausted just thinking about trying.   I guess it is going to be a quiet night for me.


What happened then was that I sat in what seemed like enforced silent for a time, and soon just abandoned the whole idea of talking with a device.  I used my voice.  It was just too awkward and too difficult not to.  And, of course, I could.  I wasn’t really limited to the voice of the machine.  I could talk. And if I was really going to be part of the class that night without making a huge deal about it and take up the already precious class time while people waited for me to compose my speech I would have to abandon my VOCA for my voice.


Talking with a VOCA puts you on the banks of a fast flowing river watching as the stream of conversation flows by.  It also seems to make the people moving effortlessly through the flow of the conversation uncomfortable or anxious as they recognize that you are not any longer one of them.  The irony of this experience is remarkable.  The very thing that the machine provides – the connection through voice – it also denies  – the free flowing ease of human vocal interaction.


Don Idhe speaks of mediation of human experience through technology (Idhe, 1983). In his discussion he points out that all technological media simultaneously amplify and reduce ordinary human experience.  Idhe’s example is that of a telephone conversation.  It amplifies in that it allows a conversation across vast distances.  It reduces in that the face-to-face richness of the conversation is now a mere voice.  How much more poignant is the amplification and reduction experienced by the VOCA user.  The ordinary possibility of a real chat with friends and colleagues exist, but only at a pace at which reduces the participatory experience to that of always behind and usually off topic.   The barrier taken away with the voice of the machine is replaced with speed bumps so cumbersome as to make the pace of the speaking journey a new obstacle in and of itself.


Talking to a crowd of people with an assistive device is not easy. With 1 or 2 people they are much more inclined to listen while I am typing or guess the point which I intended to make which makes it easier for me. This Christmas my family was all here at our place.  I had my new device and was I was feeling pressure to keep the conversation moving. I really feel that you can’t ask people to stop talking while I get out what I have to say.  So by the time I have my message made they moved on. That left me feeling kind of silly for not keeping up.


Feeling silly, feeling out of the loop, feeling like I no longer belong.  Expecting and tolerating that it is acceptable to be left out because “my” rate is too slow.  Deciding that I will just be quiet rather than slowing down the class and making them wait for me to speak with the machine.  There is a sense of great sense of inadequacy. An expectation that one must adjust to the world not that the world should perhaps wait.  Talking with the machine perhaps is not quite conversing, not yet.  Talking with the machine is speaking. But speaking that demands the flow of conversation runs at a trickle.


But the voice is a machine.

Mitchell is young man who speaks with a machine whom I have known for years.  I had wanted to interview him for this project.  I had arranged to go out to his house one Sunday afternoon for the interview.  On the Thursday before his mother emailed me saying that there was a problem.  “We have been having significant Vanguard problems and will need to send it for repairs – again! I can let you know if we are able to have the device then or not – do you still want to come if we don’t have it back for that time?”


This is a common occurrence as is implied by her interjection of “again!” in the message.  It is not uncommon for devices to break, for batteries to die at times of most need, or for some kind of technical glitch to have the device respond in most unexpected ways.


The first time I can recall using an AAC device was in 1993, when I wanted to give kind of a thank-you speech at my BA Grad party. I made arrangements to borrow the Liberator (aka “Libby”). And, because there was apparently no functional way to upload the text from my computer onto the device (which STILL seems very strange to me), I had to get someone to manually re-type my entire speech into Libby, and store each sentence under a separate key. The problem, as I found out while I was TRYING to deliver this speech, was that I had a very hard time keeping track of where I was in the key sequence. Consequently, I kept losing my place, repeating myself and/or skipping ahead and having to backtrack. At one point, near the end of the speech, I became so flustered that I accidentally hit the VERY LOUD SIREN on the Liberator, sending half my audience–including those who were able-bodied–into spasm!  It was certainly a MEMORABLE speech! But, a triumph of AAC? Well… No.


When using a device to talk there is always a risk that it won’t.  There is always a risk that it might, but not exactly how you would intent it to.   A machine is after all just that, a machine.  You may be using the device to talk but still it is the device that holds the power.  Your voice is gone if the battery goes dead.  You can get it back if there is a power source nearby into which you can plug your VOCA.  But then your conversation partners must be within the room and near enough to hear you as you are plugged into the wall.


When speaking with a VOCA you are reliant upon the machine. What do you do if the computer hard drive crashes in the middle of a conversation?  Your voice is gone for the moment, and perhaps your personal lexicon is gone forever.  What of all those stored messages?  What of asking for help?  How do you explain what on earth is going on to people around you? You can’t if your voice is the malfunctioning machine.  And to what does the dysfunction hearken back to?  Is it the machine that shows itself as at fault or is it the person who is dependent upon it?


Machines fail.  Who hasn’t experienced a computer malfunction?  In fact there is a saying oft used, technology fails us at times of most need.  But when we have functioning bodies and intelligible voices the failure can be deflected from us to the machine.  “Stupid computer” we say.  Or, we announce “there must be something wrong with the software”.  Our speech allows us to explain and deflect.  When the voice is the machine does the silence call out human failure, human limitations? Does the dysfunction of the machine declare the disability, once again?


I speak of hope, yet dreams deferred.

Despite the shortcomings and the challenges there remains tremendous hope and much faith in the power of technology to bring voice to the voiceless.  VOCA users declare to all who might listen the value they place on VOCAs to transform their lives.


The device I use is aptly called a Liberator.  However, it was not until I gave the keynote at the National People First Conference that I realized how truly liberating such assistive technology can be – not just for individuals with disabilities, but in a political sense for our nation as a whole. I had a room full of 900 people, all chanting in unison, with me and my device:




It was only then that I came to really understand the deep transformational properties of this thing we call assistive technology!


To borrow, but slightly amend, a statement from Neil Postman, one might say – Technology filled the air with the promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organization (adapted from Postman, 1993,p.45).   The speech made possible by the technology giving rise to the collective voice of the people.  Announcing their power of free speech.  People who have been voiceless in the personal and political sense of the word can join in the refrain that we are here – hear us! Voices of silenced people shouting from the voices liberated by the machine. Is this the great hope of technology for people with disabilities?  To free not only their own voice but the freedom of speech that is the right of citizenship in a democracy?  Free speech. Does speaking with a machine become the audible means to assert personhood in our democracy?  To declare “no longer are we silent, we will be liberated”?


Even the names of the devices themselves harken to this hope. The Liberatorâ…the Vanguardâ, suggesting technology on the cutting edge and the promise of all facets of voice.  The Springboardâ, a launching pad to vocal participation. The ChatBoxâ.  Oh to have just a simple chat, how freeing that would be.  And most recently, the Essenceâ and the Maestroâ.  With these, perhaps the most cherished hope of this technology, that through the lyrical power of verbalized thought one might get to the crux of the matter, the shared essence of our humanity.


Do these promising technologies deliver?  Of course the answer is yes, and of course the answer is no.  How much different is the possible world today for people with unintelligible speech?  It seems unfathomably different. These VOCA technologies are astonishing in what they can enable.  But if as Idhe suggests, what humans truly hope of technology is that it become so transparent that as to be invisible – that the technologically mediated experience of talking become equivalent to the non-technologically mediated experience of talking – then we seem still worlds away.


Someday, perhaps the technology will fade to the background and “my” voice, not the voice of the machine will emanate in a timely, true and reliable cadence. This is the hope but not yet the experience.  Is this imaginable?  This transformation? Perhaps.  With every new device, with every faster processor, with every young child and with every lost voice there is hope that someday we will truly encounter people first and not the machine.


For now, I will leave as I began, carefully listening to the words of one who speaks with a machine.


We have much to learn about assistive technology.  About its power! About its potential! And, perhaps most of all, about its dreams deferred: about how much work you and I still have left to do to close the gap between its promise and every day reality.

As I listen, I hear the call to close the gap between the promise and the practice.  I hear the call to keep dreams alive.  I hear the call to listen. Is then, when all is said and but surely not done, is the message of people who speak with machines that the real transformational power of technology comes when human beings, not the technology, can be heard?




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