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Stories: SpeakQ unlocks the writer in Adam

Speech-recognition software designed for students with learning disabilities: “It closes the gap,” mom says

The first speech-recognition software for students with learning disabilities hits the market this month.

SpeakQ - developed at Bloorview Kids Rehab in Toronto with funding from the U.S. Department of Education - is targeted to students who have strong verbal skills but struggle to read and write.

For Adam Nicholson, 14, it’s meant being able to excel in gifted programs instead of struggling in a regular class where he was labeled a behaviour problem.

“School was torture for him because he read at an advanced level and was orally gifted, but he couldn’t write what he knew,” recalls his mom Jan. “Because he’s brilliant, nobody could understand why.” Adam tests in the gifted range but also has a learning disability that affects his ability to discriminate sounds, match them to letters and spell. As a result, written work took triple the time it should and lacked the complex vocabulary and sentence structure of his speech.

SpeakQ - designed by Bloorview with the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass. and integrated with powerful word-prediction software - “closes the gap,” Jan says.

“When students like Adam get stuck and don’t know how to spell a word or get an idea down, they simply say it and SpeakQ displays it and gives them immediate speech feedback so they can identify errors,” says Fraser Shein, the engineer who led the project at Canada’s largest children’s rehabilitation hospital.

“There’s nothing on the market that combines speech recognition and word prediction as a single product in this way,” says Bob Follansbee, project director at the Education Development Center, which manages 335 projects that advance learning in 50 countries.

With SpeakQ, students speak a word or phrase and see it displayed in a box with four alternate words or phrases that the software predicts. They can click on each word or phrase to hear it spoken before selecting the correct one and inserting it into their document. The product is integrated with word-prediction software called WordQ - also developed at Bloorview - that predicts the most likely words after one to three letters of a word are typed, based on vocabulary tailored to age groups and the writing style of the user.

“It’s most likely that students will type what they can and then when they get stuck, simply say the words and rely on speech recognition,” Fraser says. The software also has a function where students can speak continuously and have their words directly typed into their document.

Adam began using WordQ five years ago in Grade 4. “It removed so many obstacles to his learning,” Jan recalls. “It allowed him to expand on his written vocabulary because he wasn’t aftaid of not being able to spell big words. Finally his writing could keep up with his intellect.”

Adam was involved in beta trials of SpeakQ and his mom says the biggest benefit of the technology will be increased writing speed. “He still sometimes has trouble starting words with the word-prediction feature, but now he can just say the word and it will get it right for him,” Jan says.

SpeakQ was designed to be simple - unlike products targeted to professionals that require a high degree of literacy - and will be marketed initially to high school and university students.

SpeakQ works with any software application - from word processing to e-mail - and is bundled with companion software WordQ for $425.

Other key players in designing the product at Bloorview were Tom Nantais, a senior software engineer and programmer; Rose Nishiyama, a human factors designer; and Shae Birch, a software programmer.

“Before this technology, Adam’s school only ever saw him as a learning-disabled child with a pile of deficits,” says his dad Geoff. “Now they see a kid with all these strengths.”

For more information on SpeakQ, please visit or contact Quillsoft, the manufacturer, at 416-698-0111, extension 221.

To be connected with expert sources, contact:
Louise Kinross, Manager, Communications
Tel: 416-424-3866
Pager: 416-589-8826
E-mail: media at bloorview dot ca

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