For people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, losing the ability to speak is only one of the devastating effects. But at the Virginia Mason ALS Clinic, there’s a way to preserve the sound of a patient’s own voice to use later, after real speech is no longer possible.
The technique is called voice banking: the patient records a variety of phrases and sentences in their own voice, then uploads the recordings to a speech generating device — most look like tablet computers — to be played back in the future. Instead of relying solely on the generic synthesized voice supplied with the device, voice bankers can choose to play recordings they made in the voice friends and family are familiar with.
The goal, says Virginia Mason speech pathologist Roberta Kelley, MS, CCC, COM, is to convince ALS patients to make the recordings before it’s too late.
“Of the patients I see who still speak well enough to do it, many won’t want to because they’re not ready to face it,” says Roberta. “I try to tell patients that talking to their spouse, children or even the family pet in their own voice makes a big difference.”
Given that more than 95 percent of ALS patients will eventually use a speech generating device, electing to voice bank could mean a big payoff for many. Newer devices are able to support patients even if they’ve lost the use of their hands, with commands controlled by eye movements. While the ALS Clinic doesn’t supply the devices directly, clinicians like Roberta coach patients on how to make the recordings and work with insurance companies to get the devices people need.
“If we see them early enough and they’re willing, we try to get patients recording right away,” says Roberta.
In the face of a relentless disease, voice banking is one way ALS patients can regain a sense of control. To hear more about how voice banking is helping patients, listen to this recent National Public Radio interview of a Virginia Mason patient and his wife.