Coming In Loud and Clear

Sound boost helps put people with muscle diseases back in the conversation

Article Highlights:
  • In some muscle diseases, such as Friedreich's ataxia or ALS, people may not have adequate breath support to speak loudly or produce long sentences.
  • A low-tech communication aid called a voice amplifier boosts a weak voice to a normal voice.
by Alyssa Quintero on December 31, 2009 - 1:00am

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 1

Are you straining to speak loudly enough to be heard? Are you tired of being asked to repeat yourself — or of being ignored altogether? One solution: a low-tech communication aid called a voice amplifier, which boosts a weak voice to a normal level.

Soft, airy speech

In some muscle diseases, such as ALS and Friedreich’s ataxia, people may not have adequate breath support to speak very loudly or produce long sentences. This is the situation for Christamae Zimpel of Ceres, Calif. Zimpel went from being a choir singer and debate team medal winner to having a whispering voice, practically impossible to hear.

Typically used with a headset microphone, voice amplifiers like the ChatterVox (above) offer a helpful solution to people with weak or soft voices resulting from progressive muscle weakness.

Zimpel, 24, who has an undiagnosed form of muscular dystrophy, received a tracheostomy in March 2003. She had no voice for almost five months afterward, and when her voice returned, it was soft and breathy.

For some time, Zimpel believed her “jerky, broken-up and soft, airy speech” was the result of vocal cord damage, but eventually learned it was caused by muscle weakness that prevents her from pushing air past her vocal cords fast enough and forcefully enough.

“You can’t imagine how frustrating it is to try to talk to someone only to have them walk away because they can’t hear you,” Zimpel says. “Or, to have someone give you a dirty look because they can’t hear your response when they say ‘hi’.”

In December 2004, Zimpel underwent an assistive technology evaluation at the Center for Applied Rehabilitation Technology (CART) in Downey, Calif., and tried a loaner device called a ChatterVox for a day. That did the trick.

“It can take even our most extreme whisper talkers and amplify their speech so they can be heard comfortably at a normal distance,” says Steve Wells, president of Chatter Vox (888-888-9060; Manufactured by Asyst Communica-tions, Indian Creek, Ill., the device boosts voice volume by as much as 18 decibels.

Zimpel now uses a ChatterVox all day, every day. She says it has “given me the opportunity to join in conversations, teachers are able to hear my questions and comments, and doctors are more inclined to listen to what I have to say.”
Making it work

For more than five years, Christamae Zimpel has relied full time on her ChatterVox voice amplification system to help boost her voice volume in all conversation settings. Zimpel agrees that this communication aid is a much better solution than depending on others to communicate on her behalf.

Zimpel, who attends Modesto Junior College, has the ChatterVox microphone mounted on an wheelchair attachment that holds it close to her mouth, picking up her voice but not other voices or background noises. The system sometimes has feedback problems, Zimpel says, such as when the volume is turned all the way up or when she’s in an enclosed space like an elevator.

Zimpel’s amplifier/speaker unit — which can be worn around the waist — is mounted directly behind her wheelchair foot plates. Although she is unable to turn the device on or off by herself, she says it’s easy to use and “no training is necessary.”

“Without the ChatterVox, my life would be more stressful and isolated, and I would be dependent on someone to repeat my comments in a clear voice,” she says. “My singing and competitive voice days are behind me, but I can once again look around a room, step forward and introduce myself to everyone.”

Pump up the volume

Voice amplifiers typically can be used with headset, collar and pencil microphones, but Wells says he’s found that headset mics give the best results.

Some amplifiers, including the ChatterVox, work with speakerphones, allowing for normal phone conversations.

Amplifiers also can be a boon to people using voice recognition computer software, by helping them maintain a standard volume all day long no matter how weak their voice gets. This in turn improves the accuracy of the voice recognition program.

Shopping around

Voice amplifiers are low-tech devices with an affordable price point, generally running between $250 and $700. ChatterVox’s two packages — $260 and $285 — include a headset microphone.

Before buying, see if you can obtain a loaner device from the speech-language pathologist at your local MDA clinic or through your local MDA office (800-572-1717).

As always, try before you buy. Unlike the ChatterVox, most voice amplification devices are designed for general use by teachers, public speakers, etc., not necessarily as accommodations for people with disabilities.

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