Assistive Technology:
Interactive Technology Enhances Speech Therapy

Speech technology is capable of making significant changes in all disciplines and walks of life. But perhaps the place where it represents the most natural and appropriate solution is in speech pathology, where advances in computer speech therapy have changed the ways in which patients and their pathologists work. While computers may make things easier for some people, for those with disabilities, they can make things possible. The ability to communicate verbally is a challenging skill to acquire for those who have lost their hearing or experienced a traumatic injury or illness. People who have suffered a stroke or head injury often have a great deal of difficulty learning to speak again. Many motor aspects of speech, such as muscle strength and co-ordination, have been lost. In some cases, both auditory and sensory capabilities have been damaged. Typically, these communication methods need to be replaced with some means of visual communication. Hearing loss also makes visual communication a necessity. For many years, speech pathologists and patients in this situation have had to struggle with the challenge of communicating visually with no accurate means of feedback. Until recently, flash cards and hand gestures have been the main ways for clinicians to guide their patients. Now, with new interactive multimedia speech therapy programs, more effective communication between teacher and student is possible through a computer. Technology designed to assist speech patients has been continually in development over the last thirty years. Products like IBM’s SpeechViewer, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this fall, are becoming standard equipment in clinics and hospitals. With interactive multimedia therapy programs, a patient speaks into a microphone which is connected to the computer monitor. Images on the screen respond to the auditory stimuli and let the patient know if he or she is producing the correct sound. Because the user is able to see what his or her voice sounds like, the patient is able to monitor progress and make adjustments in tonality, pitch, speech and accurate pronunciation. The computer’s finely tuned auditory capabilities catch sounds the human ear may not. It can also catch subtle inflections and sounds which give the patient immediate feedback on hard to master skills. This feature makes the program useful to people who have the ability to hear, but need precise instruction and practice to correctly produce certain sounds. Components
The SpeechViewer III program features some unique phonology exercises. These help the user to learn speech abilities in small steps. In the first of these exercises, the speech pathologist builds one-sound phoneme models into the computer, such as a "sh" sound or an "oo" sound. In the second phase of the program, the computer combines two of these sounds to create a word, such as "shoe." The therapist can program sound exercises specifically designed to work on problem areas. The computer then compares the patient’s speech to the model built by the pathologist and alerts the user to whether or not the sounds match. In this manner, the patient is guided toward producing more accurate phonetic sounds, words, and eventually, sentences. Speech therapy assistance programs utilize graphics to inform the user if the sound being produced by their voice is correct. SpeechViewer III has many characters and variations of visual stimuli. For example, children can make a frog hop from lily pad to lily pad through the correct verbal cues, while adults can cause the mercury on a thermometer to rise. Because the programs are designed to work like video games, patients spend more hours practicing speech so progress occurs more rapidly. Interactive speech technology enables speech pathologists to create progress records for each patient. SpeechViewer III, for example, automatically stores the patient’s voice and practice sessions. The different pitches and phonemes are saved so that the pathologist is able to call up the information in a variety of forms and graphs based upon the tracking needed. After these statistics have been accumulated over a period of time, clinicians are able to document and observe a patient’s progress, which in turn allows them to better understand where future effort should be concentrated. In addition to making a difference in individual lives, the advances in speech therapy technology have made an impact on the cost and quality of care speech therapists are able to offer clients. As medical costs continue to be a concern within the medical profession, a tool such as SpeechViewer III allows therapists to realize increased results with fewer hours of expensive personal interactive service. Patients can work on the program and receive immediate feedback without the constant one-on-one guidance of a therapist. As a result, the therapist can move on to work with other patients. New technological advances have made everyone’s life a little easier, but to those learning or re-learning to speak, the advances in speech technology have made it possible to truly be a part of society. It is important to remember, in this day when technology often seems to be forcing people to lose touch with one another, that speech technology is actually enhancing fundamental, old-fashioned human communication.
Paul Luther is the Marketing Program Manager for IBM Special Needs Systems where he has worked since 1992. He can be reached at 512 838-4893. Anne Brown is a speech pathologist at Health South Rehabilitation Hospital in Austin, TX.
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