“You’ve Got to Have a Voice”

Those were the words of a mother who has a daughter with a speech disorder. Smantha Grimaldo has used a voice box to speak all her life. Her story was eloquently told yesterday on NPR, “New Voices for the Voiceless: Synthetic Speech Gets an Upgrade.” When she was young and weighed 70 pounds, Samantha had to drag around around a box that weighed five pounds, so she could speak.

Today, technology has reduced the talking devices to the size of a cell phone. But the voices still sound robotic, like your computer is talking to you. They are the kinds of voices that Star Scientist Stephen Hawking uses when he speaks. They are not the friendly kinds of voices that a teenager feels comfortable using around peers. Smanatha complained that the old voice just sounded, “weird.”

A speech scientist from Northeastern University decided to tackle the problem and developed voices with more natural sounding speech patterns. Although this is a breakthrough, it is not widely available for everyone. But in the near future, it may be widely available for those who struggle to be heard.

There are so many people with disabilities who are not only unable to speak, but may be unable to use a voice box also. If you don’t have a voice, who talks for you? Sometimes, it is parents and caregivers. There is such a sacred bond between  parent and child. This bond is even more obvious in parents who have children with disabilities. Countless times, health care professionals witness mothers and fathers translating sounds and movements for their children who appear speechless to the rest of the world.

Regardless of the age of the child, parents and caregivers continue to interpret and “speak” for the best interests of those who cannot. They become part of a small army of advocates. It is the advocates who speak up powerfully, who will make a difference. They will help change how we view people with disabilities, so that everyone can “have a voice.”

Technology is helping boost the quality of life. But it is slow to come, and hard to integrate once developed. Robotic limbs, driverless cars and more human sounding speech devices can help people with disabilities navigate a world that is not always accessible to them. But the true spirit of living integrated lives requires having voices, even for those who are unable to speak for themselves.