Donate your Voice!

Donating your voice to help Motor Neurone Disease sufferers

Did you know that you can ‘donate’ your voice for the benefit of adults who suffer from Motor Neurone Disease? The Voicebank Project has been set up by the University of Edinburgh in conjunction with the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research. This research project aims to create a library of voices that can be used to ‘reconstruct’ patients’ natural speaking voices, including accent, for voice output communication aids.

Why is the Voicebank Project necessary?

Perhaps the most famous voice output communication aid (or ‘VOCA’) user and MND sufferer alive today is Professor Stephen Hawking. I think most of the modern world is familiar with the very synthetic and unnatural voice that his VOCA, The Machine, produces. Whilst professor Hawking’s device has been upgraded over the years, it seems that he has come to see the synthetic voice it produces as his own and has refused an upgrade to more natural sounding speech. In fact, I believe he has even copyrighted his synthetic voice, that means if you hear his voice on anything from The Simpsons to Big Bang Theory, yes, it really is him! You can find out more about Professor Hawking’s voice and The Machine on Professor Hawking’s website if you are interested.

Although Professor Hawking has come to accept his synthetic voice, the vast majority of people are devastated by the prospect of losing their natural speaking voice and having to replace it with something so robotic. Being diagnosed with MND or another neuro-degenerative disease is devastating enough without the indignity of having to ‘speak’ with a voice that you don’t feel belongs to you. After all, as I have described in a previous post right here on this website, Your Voice is your Auditory Face.

This is where the Voicebank Project comes in. The aim is to create a database of natural male & female voices with a variety of regional accents which can be used in conjunction with recordings of the patient’s own voice and those of their close relatives so that  VOCA users can choose a voice for their communication aid that they are comfortable with and that they feel reflects their own identity. You may wonder why the patient’s own voice can’t simply be recorded and used in the VOCA. Well, the fact is that for many people, one of the first noticeable symptoms of a neurological condition is in fact changes to their speech. By the time they are diagnosed, the patient’s speech is often significantly affected which is why a degree is of voice reconstruction is usually necessary. Do be aware though that at this stage, Voicebank is a research project only and not a fully-fledged and widely available service. Hopefully it will become part of the standard service for all VOCA users before too long!

I’m interested! What do I do now?

If you are interested and are over 16, have no reading or speaking difficulties and are a first language speaker of English, email to find out how to donate your voice. In particular, the project is needing male speakers from all over Scotland and from the areas shown on the leaflet here:

Leaflet from Voicebank giving details of accents requiredRecordings take about one hour and are done either at the New Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh or via the mobile recording team (Scotland only). You will need to wear a set of headphones and a little microphone and you will be asked to read a selection of sentences from a computer screen. Don’t worry, the text is big and easy to read! I recommend bringing a bottle of water as you’ll get a dry throat from all that talking. Go! Donate your voice!

If you would like to find out more about Motor Neurone Disease, visit the UK’s MND Association.

Meeting the Lovely People at Kindred

This morning I bravely donned my waterproofs and headed into Edinburgh to do an informal training session for a group of parents at the offices of Kindred in Edinburgh. It was pleasure to meet those who attended and to learn more about their children and their experiences in relation to supporting communication.

For those of you who don’t know about Kindred, it is an Edinburgh-based charity which provides a host of support to families of children who have learning difficulties (including autism). Kindred offers a huge variety of support from advocacy services to simply providing a listening ear. If you live in the area and you have a child with a learning issue, I’d strongly recommend a look at the Kindred website.

Today, I joined one of the parent groups and we did a session aimed at developing understanding of the key areas to think about when you’re supporting a young person’s communication skills. Broadly speaking, we discussed:

  • Understanding the child or young person’s communicative abilities
  • How to make the most of the environment the child is in and build in opportunities for communication.
  • Tips for helping the child’s communication partner to get the best from the child’s communication skills.

I look forward to working with Kindred again in the future!

Little Listeners is Back!

Our Little Listeners group was such a resounding success with those who took part that we have decided to squeeze another one in before full-time school starts in August! We’ll be running 5 weekly sessions starting on Monday 23rd July, 1.30-2.15pm – venue in North Berwick to be confirmed. So that’ll be the last 3 weeks of the summer holidays plus the first 2 weeks of term while most of the P1s are still in mornings only.

The group is for children who are starting school in August and it’s aimed at all children in this age group, not just those with speech, language and communication needs. 

Over the 5 sessions, we’ll explore the basic phonological awareness skills that underlie learning to read and write. Most young pre-school children are aware of words as whole chunks that help them communicate with others. They are not typically aware that each word is made up of smaller bits. As they approach school age, they start to become more aware that there are divisions within words and might start to experiment with syllables and rhyming (word endings). These broad divisions are the beginnings of phonological awareness for literacy.

Our spelling system in English is ‘alphabetic’ which means that there is a letter (or sometimes a group of letters like ‘sh’) that corresponds to each spoken sound. To be able to match sounds to letters for literacy, children need to be able to divide words up into individual parts, a bit like taking apart a jigsaw to see how many pieces there are. Because the first sound in a word is emphasised by virtue of being the first one you hear, children typically learn the concept of ‘begins with’ as the first step in this process. They then go on to break the word down further and start to realise that there are separate sounds at the end and in the middle too. There is now a large body of research which shows that well developed phonological awareness is strongly linked to later success in learning to read and write.

In Little Listeners, we will be learning about:

  • Syllable awareness
  • Rhyme awareness
  • Picking out the first sound in words
  • Blending sounds together to make words
  • Breaking words into individual sounds to sound them out

We recommend that children attend all 5 sessions so that they get the most out of the group. So that each child gets the intensive attention they deserve, spaces are limited so contact us now to book your place!

 Isla Davies: 07810 393866

 Catriona Black: 07900 935733

Summer in East Lothian!

Hooray! Looks like some summer weather has arrived in East Lothian! At last! I think we best enjoy it while it’s here, it might not last long… Here’s a nice picture of the Blethers van out and about at Dunbar Harbour enjoying the sunshine:

The Mobile Therapy Room in among the lobster pots at Dunbar HarbourIt’s been a busy week for Blethers with lots of visits all round East Lothian. Catriona and I were sad to see the last of the Little Listeners Group sessions in North Berwick on Thursday but we’re already planning the next one so watch out for details…

Training for Parents of Adults with ASD

Positive Partnerships are running some free training courses for families and carers of adults with autism Across Scotland. The courses are running from September this year and you can find more information about courses local to Edinburgh & Lothian on their website or by downloading the course flyer by clicking on the link below:

Invite for Positive-Pathways Information Events

Little Listeners Group – still a few spaces left!

Catriona and I had great fun yesterday with our Little Listeners in North Berwick. It was the first of 6 group sessions for pre-schoolers to help build phonological awareness skills. Research shows that well developed phonological awareness is linked strongly to later success in learning to read and write, but what is phonological awareness?

Well, it’s all about breaking words down into the sounds that make them up. It includes skills like syllable counting, rhyme awareness, identifying the first sound in a word, sounding words out and ‘spoonerising’ or playing with the sounds in words to make silly phrases or philly srases!

Our spelling system in English is ‘alphabetic’. That means that there is a letter (or sometimes a group of letters like ‘sh’) that represents each spoken sound. To be able to match sounds to letters for literacy, children need to be able to divide words up into individual parts, a bit like taking apart a jigsaw to see how many pieces there are.

The programme for Little Listeners is designed to follow the typical pattern of development of phonological awareness skills and to give an extra boost to preschoolers skills, ready for starting school. In weeks 1 & 2 we will be covering syllable awareness, weeks 3 & 4 will focus on rhyming, week 5 will be about the first sounds in words and week 6 about last sounds in words.

We still have some spaces left in the group so please do contact us if you are interested! Isla Davies 07810 393866 or, Catriona Black 07900 935733 or 

Little Listeners takes place at St Andrew Blackadder Church in North Berwick on Thursdays 1.45-2.30pm. Sessions are £15 each and the next one is Thursday 26th April.