Sunday, June 5, 2016

Donate your voice... it can change someone's life!

Most people take their voice for granted.  It's something I'm guilty of for sure!  Like any other human being on this planet, communication is crucial; as a business owner, a mother, a grandmother, a storyteller of my own stories and of others'I also have the privilege of singing in a choir, so I get an immense amount of pleasure using my voice in a myriad of ways. Heck, I've even had wrong numbers call me back because they like the sound of my voice - that was a laugh!

But did I ever truly think about what life would be like without a voice? 
The discovery of VocaliD, the voice company that brings machine voices to life, was a complete revelation to me!  It really helped me truly appreciate my ability to speak and realize that there are many who don't have a voice. 

I've now recorded over 1000 sentences for VocaliD, about a third of the way to completing my goal of 3487 sentences.  This means that I will soon be able donate my voice to someone who is a match to me.  Curious yet? Don't worry, I'll tell you more!   Hey, I even got this cool certificate celebrating my progress!

So, what is it all about you might ask.

I was so inspired when I first heard about Dr. Rupal Patel on an episode on Terry O’Reilly’s Under the Influence CBC show.  I was intrigued enough to find out more about her, so found her TED Talk: Synthetic voices, as unique as fingerprints.  After watching it, I was completely captivated and I knew I had to find out more.

It was her first story that got to me most, about the two people chatting to each other using their electronic devices; a young girl and a grown man.  When I heard her tell about these two people using the same synthetic voice, both sounding like Stephen Hawking, it had the same profound effect on me.  Dr. Patel said that it "hurt her heart" that this young girl had to use a voice that did not represent her; her age, her gender or her unique personality.  It was just so wrong.  You would never dream of giving this young girl an adult prosthetic limb... so why would you give her a man’s voice.  She knew she had to figure out a way to do something about making sure as many people as possible were given the gift of a voice unique to them.

There are about 10 million people worldwide with an inability to speak.  It could be because of a neurological disorder, something they are born with, like cerebral palsy; or perhaps it's ALS like Stephen Hawking, or a stroke, or Alzheimer’s.  In fact there are over 60 diseases where losing the ability to talk is a devastating complication.

Dr. Patel collaborated with a colleague of, Dr. Tim Bunnell, the head of a Speech Research Lab at a hospital in Delaware.  He had been working on reconstructing voices for his patients who had lost their vocal ability later in life.

There is obviously a lot of complicated science behind it but over the next few years, they developed a technology, which is now VocaliD.  Through reverse engineering, they can create personalized voices for people who have severely impaired speech, people who have never had a voice.

The basic principles are that VocaliD blends the speech of two individuals—a donor and the recipient.  They first record whatever sound the recipient is still able to make. Sometimes it’s just a single vowel sound, but each person has a unique vocal identity.  Someone like Samantha, who you will meet in the video, can make a sound... just an "Aaaaah..." but it's uniquely her sound.  It isn't much, just the tonal quality – the colour of her voice – but it’s enough to be able to match up the with a voice donor - someone like me... or you... so they can customize a voice just for her.

I'm really hoping that this will inspire more people to sign up on the website and donate their voice.  I'm finding it so incredibly rewarding to know that they have already matched me up with three woman who will now have a voice.  And it’s even more heartwarming to know that my grandson, Connor was motivated to sign up too!  I'll have to check out to see how he's getting along.  

Here's a quote from Dr. Patel's quote - I think it is perfect:

    "To give blood can save lives... to give your voice can change lives."

If you still have questions, here are the answers to some of the questions I had before I started:

Here’s what you need to know if you’re interested in donating the gift of your voice: 
Q: When can I start?
A: If you want to be part of The Human Voicebank Initiative, please visit and sign up to donate your voice, time, expertise, or financial support.  It’s easier than you might think!
Q: What do I need to do?
A: You need to be able to read or repeat short sentences that, together, cover all the combinations of sounds that occur in our language.  The more of your speech we have, the better a voice we can create.
Q: How long does it take?
A: We need about 2-3 hours of speech from each donor. (Though even an hour of speech can go a long way.)  You don’t have to do this all at once. You can take your time and break it up into small sessions of around 15-20 minutes, so that you can record your best voice. That’s why we need a simple website or app — so you can record whenever you want. All we’d ask is that you record in a quiet place. The better your recordings, the better the voice we can create.
Q: Do I need to sound like a radio announcer?
A: No.  We want and need all types of voices.  Each person has a unique voice, which can help this project in its own way.
Q: Will others recognize me in someone’s voice?
A: The new voice will have elements of your voice blended with the recipient’s voice, so it is possible, but very unlikely that others will recognize you — unless of course you have a famous or well-known voice ;)
Q: Why should I do this?
There are so many reasons!  First, you can help give someone a voice — that’s powerful.  But in the process, you can also learn something about your own voice just by banking it.  Most of us rarely give our voice much thought, but the process of recording can be made educational and reflective.  In fact, for K-12 donors, we hope to develop a curriculum that will supplement the voice donation process.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Happiness... it's the small precious moments that count.

May is a rough month for me... 
Today, May 22nd, is the anniversary of my darling Mum's passing.  I often reflect on her life and her lessons, but on this day she is even more present in my mind, especially her special philosophy on happiness.  But I can't believe it's been 8 years.
Mum - just before our float plane ride to Victoria

On my walk with Zoe this morning, I also thought about my precious Tilly, the Westie I had before Zoe came into my life. (Did I tell you May was a bad month?).  It was at this time of the year in 2010 that I lost her.  Tilly died very suddenly after contracting aspiration pneumonia; she was only four. 
At the time, I was a complete basket case, utterly  devastated at losing her, and spent at least two weeks in tears. 

It confused me so much at the time.  Why wasn't I handling Tilly's death as well as I did when my own Mum passed. I came to the conclusion that it's because Mum was able to give me permission to be ok with it, to be happy that she had lived such a wonderful life. She was able to tell me how content she'd been, that she had absolutely no regrets about her life.

People told me that Tilly would have no doubt have said the same thing if she'd been able.

So, in memory of Josie Summers... (what a fantastic name!) I thought I'd repost a piece that I wrote when I first discovered how ill Mum was... it helped me at the time and it helps me now to remember her as the amazing woman she was and it gives people some idea about how she lived her live.

Originally written on March 22nd, 2008.

I've been desperately trying to come to terms with some news I've received this week. And after a couple of days of bawling my eyes out, I've found a few things that have helped me cope. One is my daughter, Karen. She's my rock. And playing baseball with my grandsons, Connor and Callum yesterday was the best! I tell you, whacking at a ball with a baseball bat is GOOD therapy!! The fact that it has completely buggered up my shoulder is totally irrelevant...

Then there's writing. I'm sure a couple of my friends here will forgive me for spilling all my feelings out to them.... but it is the one way I know to get my thoughts in order and try to understand my true feelings about stuff.

I have the most amazing mum... she's always been such a big inspiration for me and has always been one of the strongest people I know. Her zest for life has never ceased to amaze me... and even now, now that she knows the end is quite near, it seems to be no different.

Mum is in Leicester Royal Infirmary at the moment after suffering a spinal cord collapse yesterday. It's a very scary complication from the cancer she's just had diagnosed. We only found out for sure on Thursday this week.

She's always been a terror when it comes to going the doctor. Not quite sure why. She said she didn't want to bother anyone when she felt perfectly alright. But she's always been a true fatalist and a realist and is of the opinion that what's meant to be, will be. It might not have been the wisest course of action, but it was hers. And I'll always respect her choices in life.

Anyway, she hadn't been to the docs for at least three years - too bloody busy enjoying life. She's hardly ever felt ill her whole life. But last month she finally admitted she'd been feeling unwell. She'd had some back pain so went to see someone. They did some blood tests and found alarmingly high calcium levels. This was just three short weeks ago so what's happened since has been a big shock to us all.

As I've often said, my Mum is a pretty amazing woman. She has told both my brothers that she's very happy and so glad that she's led such an interesting life. Mum has wanted to experience as much as she possibly can... and I believe she has.

Apparently this hunger for life experiences even includes what she's going through right now.

She spoke to my brother, Ed, yesterday about how beautiful the day was, the view from her window of the hospital is glorious. She said that the music in between the thumping and banging of the scanner was so lovely, she fell asleep and they had to wake her up. She talks of how good the food is at the hospital and how wonderful all the nurses are. How can you argue with that attitude in life?

Mike just phoned again to talk about the plans when I get there on Wednesday. Then he told me of the laugh he'd had with mum today. She's really upset about the brand new, very expensive hearing aid she's just bought - and I mean REALLY upset! If you knew my mum you'd know she HATES wasting hard-earned money. So, she was wondering if Mike could try to get a rebate on it. On a lighter note, she's also really pissed off about the 5 or 6 good pairs of shoes she' won't be getting any use out of now she can't walk... and suggested Mike try to sell them on eBay! Bloody hilarious!!

I wrote here yesterday that you can wake up every day and choose to be angry with the world... or wake up to the world happy. Mum chooses happy. That's my philosophy too. And I'm determined to be happy when I see her this week... even if it might be for the last time.

This is one of my favourite pictures of Mum taken on her favourite beach in Cleethorpes with her sister Lorn...  I love you Mum… xxxx

I did see my Mum again on another trip to England in April and sat with her sharing many precious memories.  It was so very special and treasure those moments in the garden of the hospice.  I will never forget it.