A new Canadian-made smartphone application can provide a voice for those who have difficulty speaking for themselves due to autism, aphasia or other medical conditions.
Researchers who have been testing the program, MyVoice, in advance of Wednesday's launch couldn't be more thrilled with its potential.
Especially because the app - free for six months before subscription fees kick in of around $30 a month - competes with devices that often cost tens of thousands of dollars.
"One of the most devastating aspects of aphasia is its potential to isolate someone because they can no longer communicate as they once did," said Dr. Alexandra Carling-Rowling, who is leading research into the app's possible benefits for the Aphasia Institute, Toronto Rehab and Sunnybrook Hospital.
"They can lose their communicative confidence and they lose their ability to participate as they used to. But with MyVoice, they don't have to constantly rely on a family member, they can go out and do things for themselves."
MyVoice, created by a team based out of the University of Toronto's computer science department, is designed to do the job of much more expensive devices designed to assist with communication.
A MyVoice user touches their phone's screen to have words or phrases spoken aloud for them. The app can be programmed from home to have suitable words available to use later, or a user can tap into MyVoice's ability to sense their location via GPS to offer up suggestions.
So, if a MyVoice user is at a movie theatre, the app can load categories of words that would help communicate with staff at the concession stand, or groups of phrases to discuss the movie they're seeing.
Carling-Rowling said MyVoice is also exciting because the old-fashioned AAC devices were typically bulky to carry around and some patients felt uncomfortable using them because of the stares they'd get from strangers.
But by using MyVoice, which currently runs on Apple and Android-based devices, patients are using the same technology as everyone else.
"These phones are so commonplace so it overcomes the stigma for someone who has to use augmented communication devices, because now they're using what everyone else is using, or everyone else wants to use," Carling-Rowling said.
"It gives them much more confidence."
MyVoice's creators estimate there are two million families in North America that could use their app and they were initially surprised by the enthusiastic response when they started building the program.
"It started as a research project and as we presented it at conferences and talks people urged us to commercialize it," said spokesman Andrew Rusk.
"We started testing with a user named Bill and he came into our lab and instantly took off with our product and uses it almost exclusively to communicate today."
Dr. Rhonda McEwen, an autism technology researcher with the University of Toronto, has been working with students with special needs at a local high school and has found the app both easy to use and effective.
"We were working with young people who clearly have some kind of exceptionality but they picked this up in minutes, they were able to get going, start navigating, help each other figure it out, and they had no manual. We just did a quick demo and they were off," McEwen said.
"They're extremely excited about all they can do and they feel so much more empowered and more independent with the confidence they get. We even have one young lady who has Cerebral palsy and with assistance we found she's already picked up quite a lot more than we anticipated she would in a very short space of time. It's truly remarkable."