Text to Speech Apps: A Versatile Communication Tool for People Who Can’t Talk
If you, a friend, or a family member has challenges communicating through speech, today’s technology provides you with many amazing options.
Speech language pathologists assist such individuals with communication through a variety of methods, including arming them with appropriate Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools that allow them to express themselves and live full lives.
One category of AAC tools is text to speech apps that allow people who can’t speak to type or select written text and have the app speak the text out loud for them. For many people, this technology has been life changing.
The Most Famous Text to Speech Voice
In 1985, Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s greatest physicists, had a life-saving tracheostomy that took away his ability to speak. Hawking was already suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which had slurred his speech and robbed him of the ability to move.
After the surgery, he first communicated by raising his eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. You can imagine how long it would take to communicate even a single sentence using this method!
But then Walter and Ginger Woltosz, a couple who founded Words Plus, donated to Hawking a system called the Equalizer, which they had begun developing for Ginger’s late mother, Lucille Evans, who also had ALS.
The computer program scrolled through common words or phrases on a screen, and Hawking could select what he wanted with the touch of a button (later, when he lost the ability to use his hands, he made his selections by twitching a cheek muscle). When he did so, the message was processed by a speech synthesizer called the Speech Plus CallText 5010, and an American male voice spoke the selected message.
That voice was the voice of Dennis Klatt, an MIT researcher who had been working on speech synthesis since the 1960s. Klatt developed an algorithm called KlattTalk with three voices—“Perfect Paul,” “Beautiful Betty,” and “Kit the Kid”—created using hours of recordings from himself, his wife, and his daughter.
Klatt’s “Perfect Paul” voice soon became the voice used by the Speech Plus CallText 5010, and thus, it also became Stephen Hawking’s voice.
Most people are familiar with that voice today as a result of Hawking’s fame and the 2014 movie about his life, The Theory of Everything.
Why do I bring up Hawking’s story? Because, to our ears today, Hawking’s “Perfect Paul” voice sounds quite robotic and unnatural. Today’s text to speech software creates much more natural sounding language than Hawking had available to him. And yet, even the crude software Hawking used allowed him to communicate to the world some of the greatest scientific ideas of his generation.
That’s the impact AAC text to speech technology can have.
Limitations of Other Communication Methods
Of course, there are many other ways that people who cannot speak can communicate with those around them.
At the most basic level, people can communicate using body language and gestures. In addition, communication boards (a static device that displays symbols or illustrations to help individuals with limited or no language skills to communicate more easily by pointing to a picture) have been around for many years.
Symbol-based AAC devices and apps have taken the basic communication board concept and elevated it by making it digital. This allows someone to touch a symbol or picture and have the app speak a recorded word or phrase.
And of course, people who cannot talk but can type on a smartphone can send text messages to communicate with others.
Benefits of Text to Speech Apps
But all of these methods pale in comparison to today’s robust text to speech apps.
Here are some of the benefits such apps offer:
- The person you’re talking to doesn’t have to stand next to you or look over your shoulder like they do if you’re using an old-style communication board. In fact, they don’t even have to be in the same room, as you can use a text to speech app to communicate over the phone or on a video call.
- You can quickly generate messages to respond to those around you in the moment with a text to speech app. You just type in what you want to say, and the app speaks for you.
- The best AAC speech apps, like APP2Speak, also include intuitive word prediction, which speeds up communication even more by predicting upcoming words and allowing you to input them with a single keystroke.
- You can also prepare for conversations in advance. For example, if you’re meeting a friend and you want to ask certain questions about their job or family, you can create those messages and save them, then play them during the conversation without having to type the entire message in the moment.
- This brings us to the topic of customization. The best AAC apps allow the user to customize the app by adding personally meaningful or frequently used words and sentences.
- With most text to speech apps, you can customize the app to speak in a different language than English if you wish.
- Most apps also include different voices (at a minimum, a male or female voice) to choose from and also allow you to record your own voice for the app’s output.
As you can see, today’s AAC text to speech apps are powerful and versatile. It’s no wonder they are becoming increasingly popular.
Text to Speech Apps Aren’t for Everyone
Now that we’ve talked about all the wonderful features today’s text to speech apps provide, I should mention that these tools aren’t for everyone. Young children and people who can’t read, for example, won’t be able to benefit from this technology.
However, many people who can read and write prefer to use text-based AAC systems. So, for the tens of thousands of adults who have receptive language but simply have lost their ability to talk, either temporarily or permanently, a text to speech app is the perfect tool., text to speech apps can make life so much easier and more enjoyable.
This group includes many people who have had strokes, brain injuries, have nonverbal autism, have had tracheostomies as a result of throat cancer or thyroid cancer, or are suffering from ALS, cerebral palsy, or Parkinson’s.
It should also be noted that, even for literate people who are unable to speak, sometimes a tool that offers a combination of pictures, symbols, and text gives them increased flexibility, and they may choose to use pictures or text to speech, based on the situation.
For example, some people intermittently lose speech, and some of the people in this group may also have trouble remembering words or reading during these times. In these situations, pictures and symbols can be helpful because they can jog the person’s memory to find the right idea to communicate.
This is why a system that includes both pictures and text to speech capabilities—like APP2Speak—provides the best of both worlds for people who have lost their ability to talk.
The goal, of course, is to find the system that works best for you.
For most adults who can read and write but who simply have difficulty speaking or have lost their ability to speak entirely, a robust AAC app provides multiple ways to communicate. They may create words, phrases, and sentences in advance and attach them to certain photos or save them in the text to speech section of the app to be played at the appropriate time.
Or they may use the app’s text to speech capabilities to write their messages in real time and have the app vocalize them.
If you haven’t yet checked out all of your options for getting yourself or your loved one hooked up with the best technological tool for you, I suggest reaching out for help from a qualified speech language pathologist (SLP). This is their area of expertise, and they’ll be able to guide you to the best choice for your situation.
Or feel free to reach out to me on the Contact Us page. I, too, am a certified speech language pathologist, and as the creator of the AAC app APP2Speak, I have a certain amount of expertise in this area. I’d be happy to help!