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Donate Your Voice

"One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn't exist... Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist." Stephen Hawking

“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist… Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.” Stephen Hawking

I’ve imagined what it would be like to lose a limb, not be able to walk or draw, or to lose my hearing or my sight. I’ve even imagined what it would be like to have cancer and lose my hair. Until a few weeks ago, I had never thought about what it would be like to lose my voice. I heard an interview on CBC radio with Dr. Rupal Patel and they were discussing the creation of prosthetic voices for people who have suffered from a severe and permanent speech or voice impairment.

You’ve probably heard the synthetic voice Stephen Hawking uses to communicate. He was approximately 38 years old when his speech began to deteriorate so badly that he could no longer be understood except by those who knew him closely. He has a motor neuron disease but this wasn’t entirely the cause of his voice loss. When he was 43 he nearly died from pneumonia and the experience resulted in a tracheotomy. What was left of his already impeded speech, was lost entirely. It was then that he began to use the computer program that produces his voice as we know it today.

I came to know of him in 1991 because of the documentary based on his book, A Brief History of Time. There’s also a 2013 documentary about his life, simply named Hawking which is on my to-watch list.

Did you know that he was born in England? What must it have been like for him never to have had the option to chose a voice with a British  accent, let alone one that might actually sound like him? At the time he didn’t have a choice and now that he does, he doesn’t want to change it. He’s used to it and relates to it now.

The voice he uses is no longer produced and thanks to voice donations, more options are now available. There’s still the trouble of getting it just right though. Variety is the key and some voices are needed more than others, particularly for children, elderly, and people with a variety of accents. In a way, a voice is like a fingerprint, as Dr. Patel puts it. You should really hear her explain the idea in her own voice and you can do so in this TED talk.

Imagine losing your voice. You could access a voice bank and speak again but it wouldn’t sound like you. How surreal would it be to try and express yourself with someone else’s voice? You can actually bank your own voice but if that’s not something you’re too worried about, you could still donate your voice to be used by someone like you who is searching through voice samples right now, trying to find the closest match to their own personality and how they speak. To create a customized voice for someone, a donor must speak approximately 3200 utterances, or record their voice for about four hours.

I actually signed up to do it myself, but at the moment, despite it being Dr. Patel’s dream that a voice bank be created with donors from all over the world, they don’t have the resources to respond to every donor just yet. You can learn more about the project at  VocalID, pronounced by Dr. Patel as “vocality.”

“In the United States alone, there are 2.5 Million Americans with severe speech impairments many of whom rely on computerized voices to express themselves. Yet many of them use the same voices as there are only a few options. That’s tens of millions of people world wide using generic voices. VocaliD (for vocal identity) aims to help children and adults with severe speech impairment find a voice of their own!”

If you’re interested in supporting the project, they are looking for voice donors, technical and business expertise, and of course, financial support.

Happy Pink Monday!