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U of T startup, Ontario government give people a voice

Tyler Austin is one of the users of the TalkRocketGo app, from U of T startup MyVoice

Cerebral palsy has always affected Tyler Austin’s abilities to communicate and interact with others. But TalkRocket Go, an app from University of Toronto startup MyVoice, aims to change all that.

And the Ontario government wants to help.

“TalkRocket Go helps kids and adults with speech disabilities communicate out loud using an iPad or iPod Touch,” says Alex Levy, MyVoice chief executive officer and lead designer. “For someone with cerebral palsy, aphasia, or autism, TalkRocket Go can be a gateway to education, employment, social life, and the simple joy of conversation.”

Eric and Pam Austin, Tyler’s parents, say their son learned to use the app quickly.

“By using this app in his everyday activities, he has gained a new sense of independence,” says Pam Austin. “This summer, Tyler was able to speak directly to counsellors and fellow campers at sleepover camp. He was able to participate in more activities than ever before.”

Tony Gross, MyVoice community director, recalls Austin’s first encounter with the application.

“Within 20 minutes he was able to order his mother her favourite coffee at Tim Horton’s in a local rehab centre,” says Gross.

“Just like a typical person with no disabilities, Tyler surpassed my skills with the iPad in no time; I was both embarrassed and bursting with pride at the same time.”

The app can be purchased on iTunes for $99.99. However, the Ontario Ministry of Health's Assistive Devices Program  will now fund 75 per cent of the cost of a prescribed iPad or iPod Touch installed with the TalkRocket Go app.

“Although TalkRocket Go is already used by thousands of Ontarians with speech disabilities, this new funding will help make the app available to thousands of more families, especially those with limited incomes,” says Levy, who graduated from U of T’s specialist program in political science in 2010.

“My husband faces communication challenges as a result of a stroke,” says Bonni Scott, whose husband was diagnosed with aphasia. “TalkRocket Go is the best aid we have found to help him be more comfortable and successful in communicating.”

MyVoice is proving to be a leader in the ongoing movement towards innovative technologies for people with speech disabilities, says Levy, adding the new provincial funding is a great vote of confidence.

“Our products began life as a little research prototype in the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab (TAGLab),” recalls Levy. “Many of the technologies we developed there are still fundamental parts of our commercial products today.

“U of T has been an incredible supporter along the entire journey.”

To access the benefits of the new funding, families must first seek an assessment at one of 26 qualified Assistive Devices Program clinics throughout Ontario.

Gavin Au-Yeung is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.