Speech Disabled Can Now Use iPad to Communicate

A San Francisco-based entrepreneur conceptualized the idea behind Verbally - an application that allows people suffering from speech disabilities to use their iPads to communicate - while watching his aunt Nirmala Godhwani, pictured here, struggle to speak after she was diagnosed with ALS.

By Sunita Sohrabji

A San Francisco-based entrepreneur has released Verbally, an application that allows people suffering from speech disabilities to use their iPads to communicate.

Eighteen thousand free copies of the Verbally application – developed by the company Intuary – have been downloaded from iTunes since its release Mar. 7. The text to speech application allows its users to input sentences which the iPad then speaks aloud. It comes pre-loaded with 50 of the most-used words for everyday conversations, minimizing the amount of movement needed to communicate by about 40 percent.

Verbally also comes loaded with a chime that allows the user to alert others to the fact that they use their iPad to speak. It is also the only application of its kind to offer a phrase grid, which can be customized by users to memorize their most-frequently used phrases. The phrase and word grids also have the ability to predict what the user wants to say, after the first few letters are typed in.

In an interview with India-West, Intuary CEO Ajay Godhwani said he conceptualized the idea behind Verbally while watching his aunt Nirmala Godhwani struggle to communicate after she was diagnosed last spring with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Image removed.Nirmala Godhwani, who taught music for many years at the Milpitas, Calif.-based India Community Center, died Feb. 4, after an 11-month battle with ALS, in which she progressively lost muscle function and her ability to speak.

"People with speech disabilities are increasingly left out of conversations, especially concerning their own health," said Ajay GodhwanImage removed.i. "They need to be able to get attention and participate," he said.

The goal is to minimize the amount of work the user has to do in order to communicate effectively, he explained. Similar text to speech applications rely largely on images that users can tap on to speak.

"These apps limit what the user can say, but make it really easy to say some things," said Godhwani. "Verbally is designed for literate users and enables more creative communication, the kind that we use in everyday conversation. Your flexibility is so much higher," he added.

Nirmala Godhwani was able to beta-test the application briefly before she died, said her nephew. "She seemed to enjoy using it and found it very easy to use, but at the time, the disease was taking its toll. We needed to get it done much earlier to be useful to her."

Speech language pathologist Megan Bratti, who has used Verbally with her clients, told India-West the application was very useful in speech and language therapy. Comparing the static display of Verbally with more dynamic, image-based applications, Bratti said each are useful for patients with different needs and cognition levels.

"I would recommend Verbally for any adult or child comfortable with text only displays. I think the app is excellent - and free - for people who need to communicate without picture cues," said Bratti, adding that she would like to see a voice personalization option in future versions.

Similar devices, such as the one made by DynaVox Mayer Johnson, can cost up to $12,000 and though insurance may pay for most of that cost, a user usually has to shell out more than $2,000 out of pocket.

Nirmala Godhwani was the mother of India Community Center founders Anil and Gautam Godhwani, who are both investors in Intuary.

Anil Godhwani told India-West his mother progressively lost her voice about six to nine months before she died. "That was the most painful thing to see. She had taught music for 40 years," he said.

"ALS is a disease that robs you of every single muscle function," said Anil Godhwani. "It paralyzes a person with an active mind and traps them inside their own body," he said, adding that his mother kept a pretty upbeat attitude, even during her worst struggles with ALS.

Nirmala Godhwani died the day after her son Anil was appointed to the board of the ALS Therapy Development Institute. Robert Goldstein, a spokesperson for ALS-TDI, told India-West that Godhwani was recruited to the board for "his years of experience and his passion for getting it right as an entrepreneur."

Goldstein praised the Verbally application, which he said had the potential to impact people well beyond the ALS community.

Intuary plans to roll out a premium version of Verbally this summer for an as- yet-undisclosed price.