DIY Communication Devices

Standard

Disclaimer: This is about a communication device that Anne helped me set up as a backup communication device (all my other backups — mostly bought used, some bought broken to replace parts in dead ones — have by now long since died or otherwise become unusable by me). Make one of these things at your own risk. Before you buy it, look into it more, understanding that so far neither Anne nor I have figured out how to get full functionality out of the software, and that it involves various vaguely techie stuff like looking for DLL files to download and stick in the right directories and stuff, or the thing simply will not work at all. And this device may be totally unusable to some people for a number of reasons that have to do with the size and shape of the machine, input accepted, etc. It’s not a replacement for a primary communication device either, but an excellent backup for some people, and for other it might be what they’d have to settle for until and unless they got something better.

Anyway, none of my backups work well enough for me to use at the moment (most don’t work at all), and even my main communication device is well-nigh impossible to use with the telephone in my house because of pesky things like logistics, priorities, and the laws of physics.

But I thought this sort of thing would be useful for anyone who has speech difficulties, whether it’s a physical thing, a cognitive thing, an emotional thing, or whatever. Anne said she’s thinking of publishing a guide on putting one of these things together, and that sounds like a good idea to me.

The best part about this is that all the parts can be found used and/or refurbished. This is a good thing because a huge number of disabled people are one or more of the following:

  • Under, at, or near the poverty line (unable to afford new equipment, might be able to afford old equipment)
  • Unemployed or underemployed
  • Uninsured or underinsured
  • Severely doctor-phobic (either because of the same condition that causes the speech problem, or because many disabled people have been so badly abused by parts of the medical profession that we end up fearing the whole thing)
  • Unable to speak (or speak clearly) for reasons that insurance wouldn’t cover, that medical professionals want them to ‘just get over’, or that would mean discriminatory treatment if people found out the reasons. (For instance, someone so anxious they can’t talk to supermarket clerks might find a medical professional unwilling to get them a device, even if the supermarket problem logistically needs to be solved before the anxiety problem can be solved; alternately they might encounter potentially life-threatening medical discrimination if their doctor found out they had a problem most people consider psychiatric.)
  • Intermittently unable to speak, which sometimes means insurance won’t cover it (although insurance funded my first device while I still had intermittent speech that was superficially good the moments I had it)
  • Under insurance plans that only let them have one device for a huge variety of situations, including situations where you really need a small and lightweight device (when your normal one might be big and heavy for good reason)
  • Speech-related trouble that is so mild that insurance wouldn’t cover it, but that still impact the person’s life heavily enough they want an alternative.
  • Etc.

So basically, not everyone can get a device. This isn’t a perfect solution because it still costs money and not everyone has money. But something you can get for anything between $100-400 depending on where you get things and how lucky you get, is still better than getting a worse device for $2000 (yes, I have seen far worse for that amount of money).

The parts are:

  • An HP Jornada of the sort that have a keyboard. (Mine’s a 728, Anne’s is a 720.) Although technically this could also run on something that takes a stylus, as long as there’s an onscreen keyboard (in fact parts of it run better on standard PDAs than on this series of Jornadas). I’ve seen these things go for anywhere between $10 and $250, and obviously a lot depends on the condition and where you’re getting it, and also whether you need to buy a new battery for it or not.
  • An external speaker that will have louder sound than the PDA itself (because the PDA has very minimal sound in most situations you’d wnat to use one in), and high enough quality to carry the voice. Anne and I both independently came to the conclusion we’d get Altec Lansing orbits, but there are undoubtedly better things out there than this, especially for people with coordination problems or hand weakness given how it turns on and off. I’ve seen those go for anything from $5 to $100.
  • A voice from Cepstral ($20 each, I picked Callie, Anne picked Diane)
  • A couple of DLL files since Jornadas usually run Windows Handheld 2000 and the software is written for more standard Pocket PCs. It’s specific versions, Anne and I are testing a lot of them to see which ones are best. They don’t provide full functionality of the Cepstral software, but then again that might be a screen shape issue. Full functionality, however, is nice, but not necessarily needed.
  • Velcro (Anne’s method so far), duct tape (my method so far), or some other means of affixing the speaker to the back of the Jornada.

And here’s the result:

jrnd1

jrnd2

jrnd3

My hands are there for size comparison, though the angle can make that confusing. Be aware I have small hands.

I have not yet got a video for it, and don’t hold your breath waiting, I haven’t been good at making videos lately at all.

Anyway, the plus side so far (some of these would be drawbacks for other people):

The portability. Sometimes I don’t have the energy, time, and/or inclination to lug a Dynavox around.

The size. Which is the reason I can’t use the Dynavox on the phone at the moment with other logistics and priorities within my apartment. Practically the moment I got this thing together, I had to make a pretty high-priority phone call to one of those services that calls you back later. I hadn’t been able to take those calls by myself in ages. So I didn’t get it a moment too soon.

The battery life seems pretty long so far. I have heard it’s longer on a 720 than on a 728, presumably because the 728 has more memory (AFAIK the only difference between the two). I haven’t had time to test this.

Keyboard size. I have tendonitis and not having to move my hands as far is really helpful. (I can’t imagine ten-finger touch-typing on this with large hands, I’m not even sure whether people with average-sized hands can do it or not.)

The shallow and light keys. The combination of tendonitis and hypermobility makes me dislike any key that’s hard to press. These are very easy to press. (Which might be a pain for someone who wants a lot of tactile feedback when the buttons are pushed.)

The minus side so far:

Some of the menus cut off halfway down, Anne and I have not figured out a way around it. (If anyone is willing to help us find something that allows us to either scroll the desktop down past the bottom of the screen, or take an already-running program and wrap anything going off the bottom of the screen onto the top of the screen, let one of us know. If anyone’s able to program a better-suited either cheap or freeware frontend to the Cepstral voices with the same functoinality, also let us know. This, among other things, is preventing us from saving our voice configurations, we have to slow down the voices and (in my case) lower them a little, every single time.)

The external speaker is hard to turn on and off, due to having to grab it and twist in a very particular way. It seems like it could break easily too, and it’s gotten stuck in between on and off several times.

The DLLs were a pain to get, both of us had to do them from scratch. We might provide better information on that later.

I don’t know that this will be a problem for me or not yet, but I’m not sure how durable this thing is. I no longer fling communication devices at walls or bash them on my head, but I’m still given to forgetting I have a hand, and consequently dropping things as my hand reverts to neutral or fails to correct for some other movement.

I haven’t figured out a way to mount it to my wheelchair yet, let alone at the right height. I wonder whether cannibalizing a mount-plate would be feasible, or whether that’d introduce other problems (it’d have to be able to come on and off even the mountplate quickly, because it has a USB cradle it has to fit into for charging and communication with my computer). Don’t know yet.

I have not yet gotten Ubuntu linux to recognize the Jornada as even existing, let alone talking to it. Still working on it. Haven’t yet tried using wine, I just booted to windows altogether.

I have also not yet tried finding the equipment to plug one into the phone directly. You can buy a thing from Radio Shack for about $15ish IIRC, that is meant for recording telephone calls with and playing tapes back over the phone. You connect it to the phone, flip it into “play” instead of “record”, plug it into the headphone port of the device, and you have a real (if sometimes awkward and ungainly) means of using a device’s sound output directly into the telephone. Depending on the situation an amplifier might also be necessary in between the communication device and the previous doohickey I just explained (I don’t know the word for them).

Anyway, I’m very happy with it so far despite its shortcomings, and looking forward to being able to improve on it. I am sure many variations on the same theme can be made, some of them more cheaply than this, some more expensively. Cepstral is a great source of cheap voices. Joel has made JTalk software to be used with different voices, on a different platform. Neither his nor Anne’s projects are intended to replace a person’s primary mode of communication, there’s too much that could go wrong that way. But as a backup or supplement to another means of communication, they can be excellent, and I’m very happy with it.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

5 responses »

  1. I’ve been tempted to try to find a way to use my Asus EEE as a portable communication device, but the OS (compatability issues and my unfamiliarity in installing new programs on it) is my main sticking point.

  2. Thanks again for posting this. :) While as you say, there are limitations to this equipment, it is still an incredibly inexpensive (relatively speaking) way to get TTS functionality on a small device.

    Re. the mount plate thing: Velcro might work well for attachment/easy removal there.

    Also, for visual comparison purposes, here are some links to photos of my Jornada 720 (some of which show the device next to a ruler):

    jornada_win

    jornada_length

    jornada_speaker

    jornada_swifttalk

    jornada_scale1

    Also, in addition to having the capacity to perform TTS functions (albeit after some pretty headache-inducing system file wrangling), the device itself has a lot of other useful functions that essentially come with it by default. There is, for instance (at least in the 720) a built-in voice recorder — so if you are someone who likes making audio notes to yourself, you can speak into the device and play it back later on. I also have personally been using the calendar/checklist function extensively — I know a lot of devices have that sort of thing, but of the various ones I’ve tried, I like this one best.

    And as far as battery life goes — the 720 supposedly can last 9 hours on a single charge, though I imagine that would go down if one were outputting audio the entire time. I’ve never tried outputting audio constantly until the battery runs out, but if I ever try that experiment I will certainly post the results somewhere. I can, though, say that I am incredibly happy with just having this thing to take notes on in lectures, etc. — a while back I took a full-size laptop to a presentation I attended (on artificial intelligence), and the darn thing conked out battery-wise within about an hour and a half, even though all I was doing on it was typing! The Jornada (and probably similar handhelds with keyboards) could probably last a whole school or conference day on one charge if you were using it mainly for note-taking purposes.

  3. That was very interesting.I would like to have a device like that.My speech is at times intermittent, and it would be nice to have a backup. I am not even close to being a computer expert;I’m not sure I could do all the file wrangling I would have to do.

  4. what a timely post, Amanda! Seriously, Athena had installed J-Talk just the day before yesterday, and thank goodness for that too. I went out campaigning for Obama yesterday (well, truthfully I sat behind a computer entering voter data into a program) and I couldn’t speak because my brain was addled beyond belief, for reasons I might explain in my own blog at some point. I basically had the option of attempting speech or driving safely. I had to be a safe driver of course, for the time that I was behind the wheel, so I took my laptop and made prodigious use of Joel’s software. It works very, very well.

    The Integral

  5. Fledchen, I have been pondering the same thing about the ASUS Eee PC. I do not have one yet (the husband does), but will be obtaining one of my own as soon as it is financially feasible. (Other things–rent, food, etc.–need to be paid for, and hopefully some money put into savings, before I can even think about getting an Eee PC, sadly.)

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