A few years ago, during an ALS clinic visit, the topic of voice banking came up. I was assured that it was a way to help me to prolong my ability to communicate. Banking my voice? I’d never heard of it. So, I left with instructions to check it out.
I’m familiar with the concept of food banks, blood banks, and eye banks. But a voice bank? Would they store my voice and put it back inside me later?
What is voice banking?
What I learned was, yes, my voice can be “stored.” But it doesn’t come back. Instead, it involves recording my voice, saving the recordings to an audio file, and loading them into a speech-generating device. Then, when the device speaks, it sounds like me — well, sort of. It’s a synthesized version of my voice.
Another option is message banking, which involves recording my voice saying personal phrases, such as “I love you” and “good night,” for family members and friends.
Users have discovered that message banking is particularly helpful when communicating with animals. Apparently, dogs, cats, and even pet birds prefer human voices and do not readily respond to synthesized versions.
While pondering my voice coming out of a nearby device, I — laughingly — wondered what the etiquette would be. Should I mouth the words to match the device or adopt a ventriloquist’s smile and pretend that I’m throwing my voice?
Is this the only way to communicate?
During follow-up clinic visits, we discussed optional communication devices, from Boogie Boards to text-to-speech apps for my phone. But no one told me about simple techniques I could use to continue using the voice I have. Luckily, I found some methods that could help.
As I wrote in a previous column titled, “Learning How to Speak (and Breathe) with Ease,” patients who experience vocal injury can learn specific speech improvement techniques. These include methods such as sitting up straight, speaking with a higher or lower pitch, moving consonants to the front of the mouth and breathing the words out, and using the diaphragm as an opera singer does.
These skills are taught in “The Living Speech Series,” an online program specifically for people with ALS-related dysarthria. Following the system takes commitment: to sit tall, to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing, to embrace your new-sounding voice, and not be embarrassed to speak up in public.
It works for me. I’m still speaking, although with a slower delivery and lower pitch. I find some words challenging to pronounce, so I use facial expressions and body language to improve understanding.
The final decision
I haven’t banked my voice. Have I missed the boat? Nah. I’ve decided that if the day comes when I have to rely on an automated voice to speak for me, I’m OK with that.
Soon, maybe some enterprising developer will create an app and call it “Vanity Voices” — offering a choice of well-known, unique voices to suit any occasion.
I might want to use a Holly Hunter voice when making a snappy-dappy comeback. Or even a Mick Jagger voice with dropped “hs” when I want to sound cool. For anyone who remembers Natasha Fatale from “The Bullwinkle Show,” her Russian-accented “daaahl-link” would suit me just fine.
No matter how you say it, I believe that we can live well while living with ALS.
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