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9:32am Friday 3rd August 2012 in Features
Appleton Roebuck played host to a film crew who were shooting a rather unusual movie. MATT CLARK went on set
IT TAKES a brave man to make jokes about being disabled. But Lee Ridley is a brave man; he is also disabled and relies on a computer-generated voice to talk.
So do quite a few people, especially if, like Lee, they have cerebral palsy, and the trouble is they all sound the same, which Lee finds absurd and almost comical.
So it was fitting that he should find himself helping to make a film featuring three disabled people, all using computer-generated voices, who meet at a speed-dating event and charting the incongruous situations they get into when all have the same voice, especially if two are talking at the same time.
The result is Voice by Choice, part of a research project at the Universities of Hull and York, which aims to promote awareness of synthetic voices by using creative and performing arts.
Not enough people understand how important these boxes are to the people whose lives they transform.
Lee was the obvious choice as scriptwriter because of his ability to see humour in other people’s awkwardness towards disabled people. He recalls watching Ross Noble perform a Stephen Hawking sketch and afterwards meeting Noble at the stage door, where he asked the comedian: “Do you really want to see who can do the best impersonation?”
Now he is making a big impression as a stand-up comedian known as The Lost Voice Guy. Lee describes himself as “disabled, but not silent”, and is the only comedian in the UK to use a computer-generated voice to tell jokes.
“Some friends suggested I give it a try,” he says. “In the end I decided to give it a go because I knew I would regret it if I didn’t.”
Now Lee is headlining comedy clubs with near-the-knuckle gags about drinking alcohol to help him walk straight and not being ‘in it’ just for the parking badge.
Then there was the day X-Factor came to town, Lee couldn’t resist it and keyed the lyrics of R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly into his computer for the audition.
He just stood there, didn’t even mime.
“I could see straight away they weren’t going to see the funny side.” Indeed not; after a few verses, Lee was cut short. “Did I sound too flat?” he asked the assembly of blank expressions.
Successful gigs and failed auditions aside, Lee has also written for The Undateables, a TV series about people living with challenging conditions, and Ricky Gervais’s sitcom, Derek, which some accused of mocking people with learning disabilities.
Lee covers uncomfortable ground with aplomb, perhaps because he’s entitled to, and his act includes sharp one-liners mixing the abstract with the absurd. It also includes attacks on David Cameron’s welfare reforms because Lee believes disabled people are too often forgotten.
“Everyone has their own voice regardless of what they sound like,” he says. “I think sometimes the voices of disabled people get lost and this is a sketch about that.
“My main aim was to show that there is humour in almost any subject and obviously I have experience in using a communication aid. I like to make fun out of myself all the time, so I thought I’d combine the two.”
Lee is also acting in Voice by Choice alongside others who are disabled and who use speech-synthesis technology in their daily lives. One of them is Alan Martin, an astonishing talent whose wheelchair is a source of liberation not suppression.
Alan decided a life on benefits wasn’t for him, so he turned his back on welfare and set up in business as a creative dance leader. He also uses an electronic device that produces creative music from movement and has acted on TV.
“I set up my business in 2004 and I’m very pleased with how it’s going,” says Alan. “I give demonstrations and performances and use my computer to write original music which I often use in my dance work.”
Alan communicated by using facial expression and signs until he was 31. But now a voice synthesiser has changed his life.
There is one improvement he’d make though.
“I’m from Liverpool and I wish they could give my computer a Scouse accent.”
Voice by Choice sets out to show how people who can’t speak are frustrated by not being able to make their synthetic voices more personal.
Dr Christopher Newell of the University of Hull is the film’s producer.
“The general public don’t know very much about artificial voices,” he says. “There is a need to help them more aware of a community that is obliged to use these pieces of technology.”
“I’d feel rather reticent about producing a comedy sketch showing the absurdity of the situation if it hadn’t been written by Lee. He and Alan are very happy to have laughter in the script.”
It’s a potent medium and gives light relief to bring home a powerful message.
BAFTA-winning director Patrick Titley from the University of York ’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television is the film’s director.
“It’s odd directing something where the voices come from a machine, but I realised it’s all about the way the actors look at the moment the voice is speaking.
“When we did a close up on Marie it was very moving, you really identify with someone who is struggling to communicate and you can absolutely see it in her eyes.”
Nicola Bush is playing the part of Marie. She is unable even to type and uses an infra red sensor on her forehead to select letters and phrases. Her synthetic voice box has been a godsend.
“I felt dead before, but when I got my first voice it began to open important doors,” she says. “I like to be kept busy and enjoy new challenges, so I am really enjoying being involved in this project.”
The film is an initiative by the Creative Speech Technology (CreST) Network, which is led by Dr Newell and Dr Alistair Edwards from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science.
“One of the areas I’m interested in is the same condition that makes people unable to speak for themselves also affects their motor co-ordination so they can’t use a keyboard very efficiently,” says Dr Edwards.
And that means conversation is slow. None of the users complained about their inability to hold a normal conversation but you can see the frustration of a bright mind not being able to express ideas quickly enough to keep up with them.
At the moment there is little if any choice in how the voice will sound and the big research area at the moment is in how to put more emotion and control in the voices.
But asking a computer to create feeling on demand is asking a lot.
Then again it might not be what everyone wants. Some might not want an emotionally rich voice, often it just needs to be loud enough to be heard.
More importantly it has to be faster; more live, rather than more realistic. This is where Voice by Choice plays a role by using acting, scripting and setting to evoke that ‘live-ness’.
Other developments include a computer that knows where the user is and recognises the people they are with. By putting that information together Dr Edwards says he hopes the computer will have a better idea of what people are most likely to want to say and let them pick it out quickly rather than typing letter by letter.
“I hope this film will encourage the government to put more money into research,” says Dr Newell. “This is a real Cinderella subject and hopefully it will give a voice to people who use these devices.”
• Creative Speech Technology (CreST) Network is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Arts Council England. ‘Voice by Choice’ is a recipient of research funding from the University of Hull and industrial support from Toby Churchill Ltd.
Voice by Choice will premiere at York City Screen Cinema on December 3 as part of a United Nations sponsored International day of Persons with Disabilities and will mark the first day of the CreST Road-show which aims to raise public awareness of speech technology by showing collaborative exhibits and installations in public places.
- Speech-synthesis technology using Augmented and Alternative Communication devices (AAC) allows those who have lost their voice through illness or disability to communicate verbally. The best-known user of this type of technology is Stephen Hawking, who lost his ability to speak through motor neurone disease.
The charity Communication Matters estimates more than 30,000 people in the UK could benefit from speech-generating communication technology.
AAC users require a system and method suited to their particular disability. They will have to be able to learn and understand the meaning and use of the system and be able to operate the chosen method.
Electronic systems are often a first choice as they can offer the added bonus of speech output and convey a positive image. But they can be prone to breakdown and easily damaged.