Voice Recognition Provides Independence
for Ramapo College Student
by Christina J. Schindler
"MouseGrid, 7, 7, 8, click" rapidly fires from Megan’s mouth as the mouse speeds across her computer screen. Within seconds, she has navigated to Microsoft Word, opened a new document and begun to type. Yet, she has never touched a mouse or a keyboard. Instead, Megan completely controls the computer using her voice.
Megan McTigue, a 23 year-old graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey, uses Dragon Naturally Speaking Professional (Scansoft), a voice recognition program, to access her computer. By dictating into a microphone, she is able to control both the mouse and the keyboard solely with her voice. Megan needed to explore different access methods because she has very limited use of her arms due to a form of muscular dystrophy called Werdnig-Hoffmann’s Disease Type II. Despite the movement difficulties of her limbs, Megan’s speech is flawless, thus making voice recognition a logical alternative for her. In Megan’s own words, “All I need is a voice. With the use of an electric wheelchair, an adapted van, and voice activation software, I’m basically set.”
Megan’s Computer Access
Before learning Dragon, Megan’s computer access was very limited and she was dependent on other people to write for her. Typing “just became too troublesome and time-consuming, so I would end up dictating in the end. Dictation was my method of ‘typing’ for years.” Megan typically relied on “my student aides or brother or sister, or whoever was around, to do the physical typing while I dictated. It was extremely time-consuming, not only for me, but for the people helping me as well.”
At the age of 18 Megan worked with an assistive technology specialist to find a better solution for her computer access. “The technician evaluating me thought I would be a great candidate for using Dragon because I had fine speech and the cognitive ability to handle the training.” Megan began using the program consistently at Ramapo College where she received technical support from Jean Balutanski, Director of the Office of Specialized Services. Jean initially guided Megan through a program tutorial, but it was through use over time, and much trial- and-error, that Megan fully grasped the program’s capabilities.
“As time went on and I began mastering Dragon, I began doing my own work completely independently. I started out with small papers and assignments, then I started surfing the internet for research and whatnot, and before I knew it, I was doing a 22-page senior seminar paper, research and all.” Megan emphasizes that this efficiency did not occur overnight. It took her a solid 3 to 5 months to feel comfortable with the program, and it was not until a year of use that she felt she had truly mastered the software. “Learning this program is very much like learning another language. At first I was very slow; saying only short sentences and making sure the process was actually working. It’s a very strange feeling talking to a computer and seeing visual results in front of you immediately. As time went on and I had a better under standing of how the program worked and how I could work with the program, my speed and accuracy became faster and greater. The language of Dragon has become second nature to me. Now I can talk for sentences without worrying about how the program is responding. If a problem arises, I know I can fix it.”
Today, Megan utilizes Dragon at home for all aspects of her life. She independently uses e-mail and instant messaging, participates in online auctions, manages her checking account, communicates with people by using text messages, and plays music (one of her passions) while getting her work done. (Megan attests that the music does not interfere with the accuracy of the speech recognition.) In Megan’s own words, “It has really changed my life drastically.”
The Pieces Needed
to Make It Work
Megan currently uses Dragon Naturally Speaking Professional with a Compaq PC. Within the Dragon program, she speaks keyboard equivalents for typing, tabbing, entering, and deleting text, as well as for opening and closing programs and files. For example, when capitalizing a letter, instead of hitting the shift-key with the corresponding letter, Megan says “shift-key” and then the corresponding alpha character to capitalize. Essentially any key on the keyboard can be spoken and understood by Dragon as a keyboard function.
Most people are familiar with this dictation ability of voice recognition technology, but many are unaware of the power voice recognition holds for navigating around the computer screen by emulating mouse commands. Megan controls her mouse using a function within Dragon called MouseGrid. MouseGrid enables her to separate the screen into nine quadrants. As each quadrant is selected, it becomes a smaller quadrant, making the movement of the mouse extremely precise. As Megan fires out numbers with lightening speed, she is essentially breaking down the computer screen into mini quadrants so she can target her mouse click accurately.
An important part of Megan’s speech recognition setup is the microphone she has chosen to use. It is called an array microphone (by GN Netcom), and it offers two important advantages. It has a noise canceling feature that allows background noise to not interfere with the dictation. Megan finds this feature essential since she constantly listens to music through her computer while working. Another benefit of an array microphone is its position. Instead of requiring a headset, an array microphone sits below the computer monitor and sends a listening beam. This enables Megan to work on her computer at any time without having to rely on an assistant to place the headset on her head. With this combination of assistive technology – speech recognition and an array microphone – the only assistance Megan needs is someone to turn her computer on at the beginning of the day.
Megan graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey in May of 2003 with a 3.7 GPA in Music Business. She is currently involved with training individuals on voice recognition software and working at her local supermarket, running the self check-out machines and assisting managers and customers. She also works part-time as the stage manager for a dance studio in Midland Park called Meaningful Movements Inc., a nonprofit organization serving individuals with different abilities and strengths through dance, art, and adapted physical education. Like most 20-somethings, Megan enjoys being with friends, catching a good movie, getting a drink and seeing some great live music. In the future, she hopes to obtain a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from CUNY or NYU, so she can teach a subject she loves – music.
Megan has manipulated multiple parts of the assistive technology puzzle into a working dynamic for her computer access. The power this assistive technology affords is perfectly summarized in Megan’s own words. “Assistive technology helps me communicate and function independently through several different mediums: instant messaging, text messaging, writing, e-mail, live chatting, etc. It has given me control in many areas of my life. Ultimately, voice recognition software will contribute greatly towards my obtaining a successful career in the future. This technology enables me to accomplish things that would be virtually impossible to accomplish on my own. There is no way I would have all the success I’ve had, and will continue to have, without this technology.”
Christina J. Schindler is an alumna of The College of New Jersey (M.S. in Educational Technology) and an assistive technology specialist for the Adaptive Technology Center for NJ Colleges.