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Text-to-Speech App Now Features Children's Voices

For the first time, children who cannot speak or who have speech impairments and use the text-to-speech app Proloquo2Go will sound a little more like how they might, if they could talk.

The app, for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, allows children to tap words and icons and form sentences that the devices read aloud. Although about 60 percent of the app's user base has been children about 12 and younger, the voices provided by the app were those of adults. Other products have offered high-pitched versions of adult voices, or some that sounded like cartoon characters. This is believed to be the first using real children's voices.

But using kids' voices has been impractical: It requires finding children who can spend hours in the studio recording words and phrases, children whose accents aren't too regional, whose voices sound pleasant, and in the case of the British version, not too posh, said David Niemeijer, founder and chief executive officer of AssistiveWare, which sells his creation. Adults who are trained voice artists are simply easier to find and work with.

He said there was one driving force behind the addition of children's voices to his popular product, which has been downloaded tens of thousands of times. The children who use it, many of whom have disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, deafness, and cerebral palsy, already stand out.

When the device starts speaking "and the wrong voice comes from it, people might focus more on that, or think 'That's weird,' instead of what they're trying to say," he said.

From start to finish, finding suitable children, recording their voices, and then piecing together words they didn't say, from parts of words that were recorded, took a year and a half, he said of the work AssistiveWare, and its partner, Acapela Group, undertook.

With the app, "you can say anything," Niemeijer said, but "you cannot record everything."

The long undertaking included one stumbling block when one of the boys selected reached puberty: As recording was about to take place, his voice began to break, leading product developers to start the search all over again.

The American voices, available as a free update to those who already own Proloquo2Go, became available this month. British children's voices debuted in June, and Niemeijer said he'd like to add children's voices in other languages, too. But first he hopes to produce Spanish and French versions of the app. Eventually, the voices of Josh and Ella, the American children who were recorded for Proloquo2Go, will be available to other companies, Niemeijer said.

Niemeijer, who lives in the Netherlands, is an environmental geographer by trade. Almost 20 years ago, when a graphic designer friend broke his neck in a car accident, Niemeijer developed an on-screen keyboard to allow someone using a mouse controlled by movements of the head to type. That led to creating other products that were user-friendly for people with limited movement and fine-motor skills and in 2005, Proloquo, which became an app in 2009 and available on the iPad in 2010.

The app, which costs about $190, is pricier than many of those available for smartphones and tablets. But as Niemeijer has explained to me in the past, it's far less costly than some of the other types of assistive technology. Those can cost thousands of dollars and are often far more bulky and awkward, although for some children and adults, they are still the right choice based on individual needs.

But while schools and educators often have made the choice in the past about what kind of technology to use for children with disabilities who have trouble speaking, "now parents can just do it," he said. "The balance has shifted."

While other types of assistive communication devices might be so expensive that students may use them only at school, iPads and phones are less costly and easily purchased in bulk by school districts. And many students now take them home, or have their own.

"Communication is not something for just a particular time and place," Niemeijer said.

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