Respeecher Revives Communication Capabilities for a Patient with Friedreich's Ataxia

Speech is a uniquely human ability that we often take for granted. When delivering healthcare solutions for individuals with speech disabilities, we meet a lot of extraordinary people who have had to re-evaluate how they live their lives without the ability to speak.

This time, we met Joseph Boon, a New Zealander. He was diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia along with his brother and sister. Despite the very unpleasant prognosis, Joseph and his family wanted to find ways to improve their quality of life. After some searching, Joseph came upon Respeecher. And that’s when our collaboration began.


The Challenge

Friedreich's Ataxia is a rare genetic disorder that affects some of the body's nerves. Symptoms often begin in late childhood and can include trouble walking, fatigue, changes in sensation, and slowed speech. The symptoms of Friedreich's ataxia usually get worse as time passes. The disorder affects Joseph’s coordination, hearing, and speech.

Before turning to Respeecher, he used special technology to help him hear clearly. “Although my ears pick up sound well enough, the transmission of that audio information to my brain is like heavy traffic going over a bridge in a hurricane. It takes time and effort to wade through the mess of sound and perceive what I want or need. Of course, this applies to the sound I make too”, explains Joseph.

Due to hearing issues, he can’t perceive his voice clearly. Many years ago he started using a small directional microphone connected to headphones to follow conversations in noisy environments and to hear his own voice more clearly.

Joseph’s speech began to noticeably degrade a decade ago. Today, he can still be understood but he cannot sing in tune, or hold a tune at all.

“I work hard to maintain the ability to communicate because it’s more important to me than almost anything else, even the ability to walk. But, just like walking, my voice will keep being challenged until I run out of ways to adapt. That is what brought me to Respeecher.”

Like other patients that lose their ability to speak, Joseph decided to try voice cloning technologies and figure out which ones work best for him. However, he was always concerned that it means that he has to use someone else’s voice. With Respeecher he finally found a chance to recreate his own voice.

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The Solution

In order to compile an accurate model of Joseph’s voice, we usually require around 30 minutes of recorded speech. However, in the case of patients, we ask them to provide any samples they already had prior to the deterioration of their speech. Luckily, Joseph was a presenter at a local radio station and had some recordings of himself back when he was live on the air. We then used these recordings to clone his voice.

Once we had the samples, we began working on creating an AI model of Joseph’s target voice.

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The Result

As a result, Joseph was presented with a voice model that was indistinguishable from the speech he had before his original voice began to fade. He uses this model for his vocal exercises.

“I recorded an old school friend and converted his voice to mine. I got him to read a selection of literature I like, but find it a challenge to read aloud myself. He is a trained actor, his accent is close to mine, and I like the rhythm of his speech. The result is me. Well, what I would sound like without Friedrich’s Ataxia. I listen, and recite the same words, trying to match the rhythm, pace, pitch etc. I do this repeatedly.”, says Joseph.

Such training is helping Joseph maintain his voice. “Doing this through Respeecher I am trying to sound more like myself rather than trying to sound like my friend, or someone else.”, he adds.

So currently, Joseph is using our Text-to-speech solution as Speech-to-speech can't help him fix his speech impairments. However, he is going to leverage STS as well, for his creative projects with the help of voice actors.

Having this tool is a significant emotional boost for Joseph as it allows him to reclaim his vocal creativity. Today, he is part of a creative community and is planning to record voiceovers for his radio screenplays using scripts he’s written.

We have added Joseph’s voice to the Respeecher Voice Marketplace. In this way, Joseph’s voice will be able to take on many incarnations, giving life to a number of different new projects.

As technology develops, Joseph hopes to use his voice model for direct communication.

Respeecher has created voice solutions for different healthcare cases, such as giving voice to Michael York and helping patients that went through larynx removal. Aside from laryngeal cancer, other disorders that could be candidates for Respeecher’s voice revival include Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, vocal fold paralysis, pharyngeal cancer, and dysarthria.

We are honored to be able to work with such strong people like Joseph. Thanks to people like him, we are able to continue improving our technology and help more people who are suffering from voice disabilities.


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