Spoken Gives a Voice to Those Who Can’t Speak

How the Marietta-born app is helping those with speech disabilities communicate effectively

Ohio technology is already helping disabled individuals with meals and computer use, and now a new startup is returning their ability to speak. Developed in Marietta, Spoken was initially created as a way to help people with aphasia, the inability to speak due to brain damage, but can be used by anyone who has a speech-related disability. The app gives those who can’t speak a way to communicate with more precision and detail through predictive technology that learns as its operator uses it.

“There are a lot of disabilities that cause people to lose the ability to speak but retain their mental functions,” said founder Michael Bond. “Despite that, many products are focused on people who don’t have full mental function, so they’re limited to smaller phrases and simple tools that don’t allow for full communication. We use cutting-edge technology to give predictions that help people along. A lot of speech disabilities give you a tip-of-the-tongue feeling, almost like a stutter. Spoken cues you to what the next word would be and helps say those things through next-level text-to-speech technology.”

For Bond, a long-time programmer with a tech startup background, Spoken was inspired by personal experience. His grandmother suffered a stroke, suddenly finding herself in the hospital with her mind intact but without the ability to speak. While Bond sat in the waiting room discussing options with his family, the idea for Spoken was born.

“The nurses gave her the same basic thing that we’ve been giving patients for 50 years: a sheet of paper with pictures of words on it,” said Bond. “She was the same person that she’d been that morning, articulate and well-read, but her entire communication had collapsed down to that single sheet of paper. She loved her iPad, so we just needed to find an app to help her communicate. But the options we found were just digital versions of that same piece of paper, and the non-English options were even worse. It seemed to me like an obvious need.”

In developing the app, Bond has chased his dream across the world. Spoken has received support from TechGROWTH Ohio and LIGHTS Regional Innovation, and even took Bond to Santiago, Chile for a year after he was awarded a grant through the Startup Chile program. Back in Marietta, with Spoken available on the Apple app store and preparing for an Android launch, Bond is excited to see southeast Ohio’s tech and startup scene growing.

“In Chile, they said, ‘Let’s make this the place people want to be and attract them here,’ and it’s been fantastic to see the same similar things happen here in Marietta,” said Bond. “We have a great coworking space called IncSwell, a maker space called BB2C and more. There’s a lot happening here, especially based around Marietta College, which now has a great entrepreneurship program. You’re starting to see that density of ideas and people interacting in these spaces, and that’s where great things come from.”

The most rewarding part of Bond’s journey with Spoken has been providing a much-needed resource for those with disabilities, a demographic that doesn’t often get the attention of developers. He said patients and caregivers alike have responded well to the app, a sign that shows the importance of using tech to solve problems beyond the standard customer. Spoken, he said, is simply the next in a long line of innovations that came as a result of striving for accessibility.

“Sometimes in the tech startup world, you can get the idea that there’s exactly one user on the planet and it’s a 25-year-old tech guy who lives in San Francisco,” said Bond. “We have a lot of underserved populations who are never the first thought for design. But at the same time, working with disabilities is a simple way to find yourself at the cutting-edge of technology. So much of our everyday tech started out because of disabilities — think of the gyroscope in your iPhone or speech-to-text technology. Those innovations started out as disability tech, and it’s an interesting way to find yourself working in the future.”

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