Helping students with complex needs to love the sound of their own voice

For students with complex needs who need to use a communication device to talk, efforts to provide them with regional accents, as well as sounds and expressions that accurately reflect how they wish to speak, have proved life-changing, says Cathie Bridges
3rd January 2020, 12:04am
How To Love Your Own Voice
Cathie Bridges


Helping students with complex needs to love the sound of their own voice

It's the Easter holidays and 12-year-old Dylan* is not hanging out with his friends, on holiday with his mum or dad, or begrudgingly having tea with Grandma, like others his age. Instead, he is sat in a small, sound-proof room at National Star College, Cheltenham. Into a microphone, he speaks more than 16,000 phrases. If he speaks too quickly or too close to the microphone, he repeats them.

It's a long process - one that will take days. But he's not alone: a speech and language therapist, and a technician from the college, are with him. They, too, have given up days of their holiday to be there.

Why? They are all there for Toby*, Dylan's 17-year-old brother. He's a student at National Star, a specialist provision for those with complex needs. He was born with cerebral palsy and has used a communication device to talk for all of his life.

Like many who use communication devices, the voice that speaks aloud Toby's thoughts, questions and jokes sounds generic, posh and stilted. It sounds nothing like Dylan and the rest of Toby's family, who all have strong Gloucestershire accents.

So Dylan is donating his voice to his older brother. The recordings will be broken down word by word and then transferred on to Toby's communication device. For the first time ever, when Toby speaks, he will sound like the rest of his family.

Toby is one of seven students who have been given their own voice at our college over the past year. It all began after Ben*, a student who used a communication device, asked his speech and language therapist Lucy* if he could have a Black Country accent.

She did some research, and went to the speech and language hub in Birmingham where there was a voice bank (a store of voices created from volunteers reading a selection of specific phrases and words). The only Black Country voice available was that of a middle-aged woman - clearly not appropriate for a teenage boy.

We briefly considered other voice banks - there is a commercial market out there and you can purchase voices. But, again, there was nothing age appropriate.

In fine voice

So, what could we do? At National Star, we want to help young people to become individuals: getting a voice that 10 other people could also be using wasn't right for us. We wanted Ben to be involved in the decision, to choose a voice from a range of options. It needed to be his voice - one that couldn't be banked, one that he could keep forever.

And so we turned to the idea of voice donors: siblings, volunteers, those who could see the value in spending hours recording thousands of phrases for the benefit of one of our students. We found a company that could do the technical work and build the voices for us - but it was up to us to source the donors.

In this, we had a stroke of luck: while the hunt for Ben's voice was going on in the background, we were making a programme with BBC Radio Gloucestershire with students who used communication devices. When the programme aired, they included a call-out for voice donors. Our PR and communications officer, Marianne, also put a call into The One Show, and everything started to snowball. The One Show said it would work with four students to find them a voice: three different films were broadcast and the students appeared live on the show four times.

The response was incredible: hundreds of people came forward to volunteer. Once we'd filtered through the potential donors and found a group that was age, gender and region appropriate, we asked those selected to record themselves speaking a set of sentences. Along with one of our speech therapists, I then sat with the students and played the recordings to them: we soon had an understanding of how they wanted to sound. Some wanted to sound like their families, others had a very specific idea in their head of who they were and how this voice would represent them.

Once they had chosen a voice, we asked the donor to come into the college and record the 16,000 phrases. Two weeks later, the pupils had 30 variations of their "voice" to choose from, with variations of pitch and clarity to make a decision about. That decision made, the final voice package was edited and then it was up to my team and me to programme it into the communication devices.

That was not the end of the process. Your voice matters, and so students were enabled to fine-tune the voice when it was on the system - an opportunity they seized, spending hours playing with and perfecting the sounds.

Eventually, for the first time, our students had voices that were truly their own.

The above makes a complex process sound very simple: we had a few challenges to negotiate along the way. So, if you would like to do something similar for students at your college, what should you watch out for?

When we did find suitable voices, commitment became an issue. It takes six to eight hours to do the full recording, and we couldn't get many people to even send in a few minutes for a sample.

We used Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts students for a couple of the voices, and found that to be a much smoother process. They brought a level of professionalism, and made the effort to meet the students that they were donating their voices to.

Funding was another problem. There was some from the NHS available: students with equipment supplied on a long-term loan do get some money for regional accents. But students who didn't meet the criteria had to find other means of funding their voice: some did get local authority or private funding, but that wasn't always the case.

As such, we launched the technology fund to support those who weren't able to obtain financial support elsewhere, but that money only paid for the technical side (ie, the build once it had been recorded).

We've learned, through a very painful process, the sheer amount of time it takes to source and record the donor, and then transfer it to the device at the other end. If you want to provide voices, this should be a key consideration.

Undoubtedly and wholeheartedly, though, it is all worth it. The impact on the students is life-changing. The uptake in usage of the devices afterwards has been huge. Students have thrived: suddenly they've got a huge vocabulary available to them, full of words and phrases that they identify with. Levels of confidence have rocketed.

Parents are thrilled, too - they've told us that the students are much more interactive at home. Using communication devices, especially if it's an eye gaze, is hard work and takes a lot of concentration. But now they've got the motivation to do that: they sound like individuals, they sound like themselves.

One mum told us she was particularly pleased that her son no longer sounded like the Queen - something that was funny at first, but quickly wore off.

It's helped staff in lessons as well. It was often the case that if they were teaching a group of students all with communication devices, and one of them said something while their back was turned, their teachers couldn't tell who'd said what.

We've identified four students to create voices for this year: it's important for the speech and language staff to consider students carefully, and identify who really wants that voice and doesn't just want it because they think they will be on TV. They have to have that buy-in, they have to have given it thought, and not just said, "Yes, I want something because it's being offered to me".

We would like to do more to help those not at the college, but we haven't figured out a way to make it more financially viable. We don't want to make a profit: we just want to break even. And while we have suppliers, their ethos differs to ours: they see it as a commercial gain whereas we see it as a quality-of-life gain.

Cathy Bridges is the lead technician at National Star College, Cheltenham

*Names of individuals have been changed to preserve anonymity

This article originally appeared in the 3 January 2020 issue under the headline "Helping students to love the sound of their own voice"

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