Illustration by Jules Struck

For those with disabilities, new ways to express their voice

Having “voice” is critical. But identity and personal agency are about more than just our natural ability to speak. This is episode 6 of the podcast series “Say That Again?”

Episode 6: To Build a Voice

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Sean Boyle is getting a new voice. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the 18-year-old has difficulty articulating words – and has spent much of his life using a text-to-speech device with preprogrammed voices. Now his family is working with VocaliD, a company that builds synthetic voices, to create one that is uniquely his own. The voice blends Sean’s physical voice and that of his younger brother, who does not have a speech disability. 

Sean is excited that his new voice will sound more like him, but he’s happiest that “I helped to make my voice,” he indicates during an interview. 

“I’m hoping he will gain a sense of individuality, of personhood, of literally having his own voice,” says Jennifer Boyle, Sean’s mom.

The final episode of “Say That Again?” features Sean’s story, along with that of Larry, who recently went through a medical procedure that left him almost entirely unable to speak. (Larry asked us to keep his last name private while he’s recovering.) Together, they show us the value of our distinctive voices, and the power of technology to help us express ourselves.

Their stories are also a reminder that although who we are is revealed in how we talk, we are also so much more than just our speech.

As Larry says, “Your unique voice is a projection of you, but it isn’t you.”

This podcast has a newsletter! It’s run by host Jessica Mendoza and funded by the International Center for Journalists. Click here to subscribe. 

Episode transcript

Larry: You know, at my age and stage, you've had your voice so many decades, your whole life. And it is wrapped up in your personality. 

Jingnan Peng: This is Larry. He lives in Canberra, Australia. And this recording was made by his wife, Alicia, just moments before an operation that doctors said would very likely impair his ability to use his voice.

Larry: So I've been an instructor and a teacher, and I've, I've always been very vocal and, you know, to suddenly know that you're going to lose that voice…

Jessica Mendoza: Three weeks earlier, Larry was diagnosed with cancer in his mouth. The sudden timing meant that he and Alicia had to rush to prepare for this huge change in their lives. And they didn't really have time to mourn for his voice. 

Larry: People relate to the memory of you in your voice. You know, when people hear your voice, they think of you.

Peng: Larry and Alicia have been married for about 30 years. Just before Larry went in for his surgery, Alicia managed to record Larry telling her favorite jokes, and singing one of her favorite songs, “La mer.”

Larry: [Sings] La mer. [Makes French sounds and laughs.] Somewhere across the sea, somewhere watching for me.

Larry: I’m afraid, obviously, that, once it's taken away, even if I develop another voice – I'm able to train and be able to articulate and speak again – it's a different voice. 

[Singing fades back in: “We’ll meet, I know we'll meet, across the shore.”] 

Larry: But to retain something of my old voice, synthesized, I think is a wonderful thing. What it means is I'll retain some of my old identity. 

[Singing fades back in: “And never again I go sailing.”]

Peng: You’re listening to “Say That Again?” – a podcast about how we sound, how we listen, and why that matters. From The Christian Science Monitor, I’m Jingnan Peng. 

Mendoza: And I’m Jessica Mendoza. 


Peng: So, this is our last episode of the season. 

Mendoza: I can’t believe it!

Peng: Yeah. And you know, all throughout this podcast we’ve been talking about the idea that our accents, languages, and voices – they shape and reflect who we are. But what about people who have trouble using their voices? 

Mendoza: Right. Today, in the U.S. alone, some 7.5 million people belong in that category. In previous episodes, we talked about how so much of being human is wrapped up in communicating and expressing ourselves. And so this can be a big challenge for folks with speech disabilities.

Peng: Thankfully, advances in technology are allowing more people to express themselves. With voices that are more and more human-like and personalized. 

Mendoza: Today we share two stories of people who are turning to this technology for help. For Larry, it’s about preserving his own voice. And for Sean – you’ll meet him later – it’s about creating one he has never had. 

Peng: In their own way, each is navigating the question: how much can technology help us construct our voice, and shape who we are? 

Mendoza: This is Episode 6: To Build A Voice.  


Alicia: Hello, hello, hello?

Peng: I spoke with Alicia over Zoom about two weeks after the surgery. Larry was still recovering, and only made a brief appearance halfway through the call.

Mendoza: And you actually thought Alicia was Australian at first, right?

Peng: Yeah, from her accent. But I found out she’s from the U.S.

Alicia: That's funny because Australians would say, “No, you don't sound Australian at all.” But family and things, when I talk to them on the phone, they think I sound very Australian.

Mendoza: Jing, you know you’re not supposed to make assumptions based on the way people speak.

Peng: I know. You're right! After reporting a whole season about this, here I am still. 

Mendoza: Larry and Alicia met in the early 1990s, while they were both stationed at an army base in the U.S. Larry is Australian, and the couple moved to Australia soon afterwards. Today, they both work in risk management.

Peng: They asked us not to use their last names, because they're going through a private time and don't want to be contacted about their story.

Mendoza: Larry has been diagnosed with cancer once before, about 10 years ago. And he survived it.  

Alicia: He's been clear, clear, clear. It's been wonderful. So we were a very “good news” story.

Peng: But in early February, about a month before our Zoom call, Larry got the news that the cancer had come back. This time, the doctors said: 

Alicia: “Look, Larry, you are going to need to prepare for the fact that you might not be able to speak. Or if you are able to speak, it's going to be after a lot of therapy. And at the end of the day, it may be only your wife, or people that you know who will understand you. 

Larry is, he is a big voice. He's a big personality. (Cries.) He's, he’s, he’s a lecturer, been a lecturer. He's a wonderful storyteller. He’s really the life of the party. There's never a silent moment when Larry’s around. 


Alicia: Having gone through and survived last time, we were just like, “Right, OK, we're just going to deal in facts. What can we do to ensure that this isn't going to be the end of our lifestyle, of what we have?” So I just started doing some searches online. And one of the phrases was "Losing voice. How can I save it?" And VocaliD came up. 


Rupal Patel: To build a personalized voice today takes us somewhere between a week to two weeks to do, once we have all the recordings that we need in order to build the voice.

Peng: This is Rupal Patel. 

Patel: I'm the founder and CEO of VocaliD and I'm also a professor at Northeastern University.

Peng: VocaliD builds synthetic voices for businesses that use them for things like dubbing video content, or answering customers’ calls. Voices that sound like this: 

[Male voice: “On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me. Two turtle doves.” Female voice: “And a partridge in a pear tree.”]

Mendoza: But the company also creates customized voices for people with speech disabilities. 

Peng: So a lot of folks with speech disabilities use text-to-speech devices that turn phrases you input into spoken sentences. These devices often come with pre-built voices. And a lot of the time, those voices don’t match aspects of the user’s identity.

Mendoza: For example, the late physicist Stephen Hawking was British. But his electronic voice – 

[A recording of Stephen Hawking, saying: "Where did we come from? How did the universe come into being?"]

Mendoza: – had an American accent.

Peng: But VocaliD can help people like Larry – who are at risk of losing their voice – create a digital clone of their voice. It’s a service known as “voice banking.”

Mendoza: To start with, you record yourself.

Patel: We ask for about 2,000 sentences to be recorded. That's around 90 minutes to two hours of speech. 

Mendoza: The VocaliD team then takes those recordings and the transcript, and feeds it to software that can "learn" to speak.

Patel: It's trying to learn – every time I see this particular piece of text or this combination of symbols together, how do I say it out loud? 

Peng: The technology isn’t perfect. But in short clips, you might not be able to tell the difference between these synthetic voices and actual human voices. 

Mendoza: And building them has become much faster and cheaper. It’s pretty sci-fi. 

Patel: There's been a whole revival of research in this area and technology development in this area in these last few years. Think about Siri, Alexa voices, all these new Google voices that are being built right? 

[A recording of Siri, saying: "I found this on the web."]

Patel: It's exciting to see that assistive technology users are benefiting from this technology, which typically most advances in technology don't come to people with disabilities until 20, 30 years later. 


Peng: Back in Canberra, when Alicia learned about VocaliD, she forwarded the article to Larry. 

Alicia: He was like, “Yes, let's do it.” We basically only had two weeks before his surgery to record the 2,000 sentences. They recommended being in a quiet room so that the sound quality was as good as possible. Because he was getting sore and more tired, he could really only do about 200 sentences a day. So there was that stress as well, of, Are we going to get enough sentences done? 

Everything happened so quickly, so we were racing around doing tests, and getting his recuperation room ready at home. And just doing so many things. So it wasn't really until we were outside of the hospital, in the parking lot, that we quickly recorded some of his key phrases. He recorded several different ways of saying, I love you. And it is hard to prepare for the unknown.


Peng: But Larry and Alicia also had hope. 

Larry: In the midst of a terrible medical event, to have that taken away from you, and yet there's an electronic version stored – is, gives you great hope. Gives you self-confidence. 


Alicia: What's the first sentence you want to say? 

Peng: VocaliD delivered the synthetic voice to Alicia while Larry was still recovering from the surgery. She brought it to the hospital, and played his first words.

Alicia: OK, you ready? 

Larry’s voice: I love Leesha.

Alicia: [Laughs, claps] Sounds like you. Oh, really does.

Mendoza: I love how Larry calls Alicia “Leesha.”

Peng: Yeah, it’s so sweet.

Alicia: Next sentence. 

Nurse: Very cool. 

Larry’s voice: I want to go home. (Alicia laughs.)

Nurse: Fair enough. 

Alicia: But that's his voice. It sounds just a little robotic. Just a little. It's really you. And once you type them in once, you can like them, mark them with a little heart, and then you can look at the list, and then pick them. 

Nurse: That's good. That is very handy.

Mendoza: Larry’s new voice software lives on his phone and iPad. For him and the people around him, hearing that voice has been pretty overwhelming. 

Alicia: When we first got his mother on the phone, she just burst out crying. Everyone has just said, Oh my goodness, it sounds just like you.

Mendoza: And here’s Larry weighing in, speaking with his new digital voice. 

Larry: To hear yourself speaking via the machine, and others recognizing it's your old voice is so emotional.

Peng: So we actually sent Larry and Alicia some questions ahead of our interview. Larry typed out his answers on his VocaliD app, and Alicia played them for me. 

Mendoza: For comparison, here’s what Larry’s old voice sounded like. 

Larry: Whenever people hear your voice, they think of you.

Mendoza: And here’s Larry’s voice clone. 

Larry: I’m just so happy to have it. For a long time now, people have been recording themselves, so we're used to hearing the recorded voice.

Mendoza: Isn’t that amazing? When our producer Sam first heard Larry’s new voice she didn’t realize it was from an app. It sounded so authentic. 

Peng: Yeah! 


Peng: At the time we reported this episode, Larry still had a lot he needed to work through. He was resting a lot and trying to build back his strength. He also didn’t lose the ability to speak entirely, and will be going through voice therapy. But he doesn’t know how much he’ll be able to sound like his old self. 

Mendoza: And then in terms of his new voice, needing to type each sentence before it’s spoken out loud slows down the conversation a lot. 

Larry: Frustrating, but so are many things when you first begin. It will speed up over time. 

Peng: Also Larry hasn’t used his voice app enough to know if it lets him express himself effectively in different interactions.

Larry: Most of what I've needed to say has been day-to-day functional phrases in the medical environment. It will take time to expand into those other areas.


Peng: Still, Larry and Alicia are really thankful they found VocaliD when they did. 

Alicia: How terrible it would have been to have found out after the fact that this service was available. And we just [...] want to make sure that other people who are going through this, that they're more likely to find out about it. 

Mendoza: But Larry also said something that really stuck with both of us.

Larry: Your unique voice is a projection of you, but it isn't you.

Mendoza: To me, that meant that although our voices are a big part of who we are, they’re not everything. Larry might never again speak in the way that he used to, but he can still hang on to and express important parts of him. 

Peng: Right. In fact, Larry said he and Alicia still connect in many of the same ways they always have. 

Larry: As the doctor said going into this, couples who have been together a long time don't need to say much to communicate. She's been reading my mind for a long time now. 

Alicia: We still hold hands. We still, you know, hug each other often. But it's going to be a transition. It’s going to be a lot of work. But just like 10 years ago, we're confident that it's going to be another good-news story.


Peng: So Jess, this whole conversation makes me think of my experience, both as someone raised by parents who are disabled, and as a reporter who has covered disability. I know that people can be resilient, and they can find all kinds of ways to lead meaningful lives, and express themselves.

Mendoza: For sure. And even when they don’t have abilities that other people might see as essential, people can still be true to themselves and who they are. For our next story, we meet a young man who has had a speech disability since birth. And he’s getting a personalized voice for the first time. 

Peng: It’s a fascinating process. It actually makes me think of Episode 1. We talked about how your voice is shaped by all these things: your upbringing, how others perceive you, your own self-image of course. And, in many ways, crafting a synthetic voice feels very similar. We’ll be right back. 


Clay Collins: Hi, I’m Clay Collins, an editor here at the Monitor. I hope you’ve found a lot to take away from our podcast, which wraps up with this episode. Please rate and review us wherever you listened! And if you know someone you think would like Say That Again? as much as you have, please share your favorite episode – or send them to the full series at CSMonitor.com/SayThatAgain. As always, thank you for listening.


Mendoza: Welcome back. This is Say That Again? I’m Jess.

Peng: And I’m Jing. 

[Doorbell rings, dog starts barking]

Jennifer: Hello, how are you?….

Mendoza: Our next guests are the Boyles. They live in New Jersey. And we visited them in early March. 

Jennifer Boyle: So what do you want to tell Jing and Jess about you?

Sean Boyle (Tobii): I live in North Caldwell with my mom, my dad, my brother Sam, and my dog, Casey. 

Peng: That’s Sean Boyle. He’s 18 years old, although the voice he’s using might sound much older. 

Sean (Tobii): I like Disney Pixar movies, like Toy Story and Monsters Inc.

Mendoza: Oh those are such good movies!

Mendoza: Sean is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It means he has trouble controlling his movements. When we interviewed him, he was sitting in his wheelchair, with his mom, Jennifer, beside him. And he talked to us using a text-to-speech device called a Tobii. What you’re hearing is one of the Tobii’s pre-built voices.

Sean (Tobii): I’m going to be interviewed for a podcast this weekend. I feel a little shy, but my family will help me. 

Peng: The Tobii looks like a big, heavy-duty iPad. It’s mounted on Sean’s wheelchair, at about arm’s length from his face. The Tobii can read out pre-typed statements, like the ones you heard. It also allows Sean to string together sentences with his eyes, which the device tracks. 

Sean (Tobii): I… need… a hug. 

Jennifer: Oh, OK. 

Mendoza: So the way it works is, Sean keeps his eyes on a word on the Tobii screen for one full second, and that tells the Tobii he's choosing that word. To start a sentence Sean might choose the word "I." And then, the Tobii will suggest verbs that can come next, like "want," or "need." And Sean does that until he completes the sentence. 

Peng: The pace of the conversation was a lot slower than a typical interview. Also, for me, it was a bit hard to read Sean’s facial expressions. But there were times when his feelings came through quite powerfully.

Peng: Would you like to get a hug from me? 

Jennifer: What do you think Sean? You can say yes or no. 

Sean (Tobii): You don't... 

Peng: Oh, OK.

Jennifer: OK, I think he wanted a hug from mom.


Mendoza: We talked to the Boyles because they were working with VocaliD to build Sean’s first customized voice. The voice will replace the one he’s using now. And it blends Sean’s physical voice and the voice of his younger brother, Sam, who doesn’t have a speech disability, and whose voice is similar to Sean’s. 

Peng: It’s a complex process, and the technology is almost the least of it. There’s Sean’s sense of his identity, his family’s idea of how he “should” sound, and sibling dynamics – all that comes into play. 

Mendoza: But the hope, Jennifer says, is that the new voice will help Sean express more of himself when he’s interacting with others.

Jennifer: I'm hoping he will gain a sense of individuality, of personhood, of literally having his own voice.


Peng: Sean needs care pretty much around the clock, so his parents were very present throughout the interview. They encouraged him to speak, and also interpreted sounds that Sean made in his physical voice. 

[Sean vocalizes.] 

Neil: All right that, that is a “yes” vocalization. 

Peng: That’s Sean’s dad, Neil.

Neil: A “no” one would have been – 

[Sean vocalizes.]

Jennifer: He has a very rich, low speaking voice. I happen to think his voice is really beautiful. I have not heard him express his opinion about his voice. I do notice that when he passes a mirror, he really likes to look at himself. Because some of his experience of himself is limited, physically limited, I think he uses whatever he has to know who he is. 

Mendoza: Helping Sean express himself in as many ways as possible has always been important to his parents. 

Peng: They got him his first Tobii when he was six. The device, like we said before, comes with a selection of voices, and they cover a range of genders, ages, and accents.

Jennifer: The available voices for children, one of them matched his own voice pretty closely.

["Kenny" voice, saying: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Mendoza: That voice is called “Kenny.” As Sean got older, they switched to a voice called “Josh.”

["Josh" voice, saying: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.]

Jennifer: But then, as he got older and became a teenager and his voice deepened, that’s when the voices really didn't sound so much like Sean anymore. As we were going through all the available voices, Sean did not say he liked any of them. So I would ask him, like, “Do you like this one?” And he would say no. And all of them, “No.”

In his class at school right now, there are six individuals. And one uses the same voice as Sean does. And it's because that's the closest one, in many people's estimation, to a late teenage voice.

Peng: This kind of situation is part of what inspired Rupal Patel to start VocaliD. Back in 2002, she was at a conference in Denmark. And she was struck when she saw a young woman and an older man talking to each other using the exact same synthetic voice.

Patel: Of course, we wouldn't give a young woman the prosthetic limb of a grown man. So why the same prosthetic voice?

Peng: For people like Sean, who are born with a speech disability, the VocaliD team builds what it calls a “bespoke voice.”

Patel: A bespoke voice is essentially a combination of some vocalization that the end user can still make and recordings of a matched voice donor – so someone who's similar to them in age and gender, desired accent, all of those kinds of things.

Mendoza: Jennifer Boyle found out about this service in 2016, at a summer camp for people who use synthetic voices. One of the campers, a girl named Maeve, had recently had a customized voice made. 

Jennifer: She has two older sisters, both of whom donated their voices to help make Maeve's voice. They also have a distinctive accent. Very lovely. And it sounds very natural when she speaks.

Mendoza: Back then, Sean’s physical voice still sounded pretty close to the voice on his Tobii. But Sean began to outgrow the voice. So last year, Jennifer started looking into a customized voice for Sean. And so she turned to her younger son, Sam, whose voice was also starting to deepen. 

Jennifer: I thought that because Sean and Sam are close in age, 15 and 18 years old, that Sam would be the best possible person to donate his voice.

Peng: But when Jennifer first asked Sam about it –  

Jennifer: He said no. “I don't want Sean to have my voice.” I realized that he thought he was recording his voice so that Sean would be speaking in the exact same voice as Sam's – which, I wouldn't want somebody else to have my exact voice, either. Voices are so personal. So I explained to him that that was not what was going to happen. That Sean’s voice would sound different. 

Peng: So we should note here: Sean and Sam have a pretty complicated relationship. 

Sam: Unfortunately I'm the youngest of this family with a serious case of little brother syndrome. 

Jess: You don't like being treated as the baby. 

Sam: Yeah.

Jennifer: When someone in a family has a complex disability, they also need and require a lot of attention. Sean needs those things. But Sam is also sometimes jealous. I've talked to Sam about the fact that his wishes, wants, ideas, matter every bit as much as Sean's. And as he has gotten older, he has a lot of empathy for his brother. He'll say things like, “Sean wants to watch a movie,” or “Sean wants to get out of his chair.” Because he's paying attention to Sean also. 


Mendoza: Eventually, Sam came around about donating his voice. And Sean liked the idea too. Both brothers wound up recording their voices for VocaliD. 

Jess: How do you feel about having him use your voice?

Sam: I like it because then I could give him a separate voice that sounds a lot more like him. He could sound more like his own self. Not just some older person.

Mendoza: Sam read out five hours’ worth of sentences, and Sean recorded various sounds that he can make.

[Sean vocalizes.]

Peng: And then VocaliD combined those two voices in what they call a “voice smoothie.” At the end of February, the first version of the voice came back. It sounded like this: 

Sam (bot v1): Always laugh when you can. It's cheap medicine. 

Jennifer: That is Sample A. Here is Sample B: 

Sam (bot v1): This is my own special voice. It is like no other. 

Jennifer: I did not share the voice with Sean or Sam, the first one, because I think they both would have felt upset that it sounded so much like Sam. So I gave some feedback about how I feel the voice needs to be different. 

Sam's voice kind of sounds like he is giving orders, for lack of a better phrase. He has a very forceful voice, and he does not have a lot of vocal inflection, and that’s his voice. But Sean, to me, uses a wider variety of tones and pitches and it’s also a bit softer. 

Part of what VocaliD does is look at the frequency of the voice, the pitch of the voice, lots of different characteristics. And Sean's voice and Sam's voice are very similar – they said, almost identical – which, I was surprised. My ear hears a different voice coming from Sean, because he's a different person. His personality is different. The vocalizations to me sound so different. 


Peng: You know Jess, it’s so fascinating that our perception of people’s voices is also wrapped up in what we think of their personality. Especially for people who are really close to us, I guess. 

Mendoza: Yeah, and it makes sense that personality comes up a lot too when you’re building a synthetic voice. Here’s Dr. Patel again, from VocaliD. 

Patel: Especially for bespoke voices, it's like, “Well, that voice doesn't really quite sound like my son. He's a lot more assertive.” What is assertive? You know, how do I… What is the acoustic correlate of “assertive,” right? So it’s a lot about the people. 

Peng: Accents also come into play. 

Patel: If you think of a child who, let's say, is born in Ireland. But they're born to a family, let's say an Indian family. Maybe they don't actually want an Irish-sounding voice just because they live there –so, like, think about  things like that. And that's happened many times. 

Mendoza: And as the technology develops, the voices get better, and more people use them, there are a lot of bigger ethical issues to consider too. 

Patel: Could there be fraudulent uses of the voice? There may be someone who claims that they need us as a synthetic voice built, but they're going to use it for insurance fraud, or for getting into someone else's bank account. 


Peng: For the Boyles, though, their main concern right now is just getting Sean the voice that feels right to him. When we visited them, they had just listened to the third iteration of the voice. Here’s what it sounds like.

Sam (bot v3): So please pass this around amongst yourselves today and play with it.

Peng: Here’s another sample. 

Sam (bot v3): The wonderful day when he first knew that he was real.

Peng: Jennifer compared these samples with the very first version. 

Sam (bot v1): Always laugh when you can. It's cheap medicine. 

Jennifer: Now, can you believe how different...

Peng: I do feel like this one is kind of more like flat in terms of the energy level. But the later versions, there are some more like ups and downs of the pitches. So I guess maybe it’s more expressive?

Jennifer: This version came in on Monday. And Neil came up into the family room where we’re all standing to listen to them too. And he got a tear in his eye. He said it sounds like Sean. And it did. It does sound like Sean. It's really an emotional thing. 


Neil: It was for the first time ever that I could imagine that voice coming from him. 

Mendoza: What do you hope Sean will get from this voice? 

Neil: Well the word that popped into my head is some power. I think it will help Sean show up more and be more of an individual. And if it prompts him to interact with that Tobii more, that'd be even better. 

Peng: Of course, the most important question is: What does Sean think?

Mendoza: When we brought this up, Jennifer suggested we communicate with Sean in a different way. The Tobii can be hard to use for more complex topics, and also it can get tiring for Sean. 

Peng: Right. So it’s actually pretty typical for the Boyles to use different ways to talk to Sean. In this case, Jennifer asked a yes or no question –

Jennifer: The voice that we heard last night when you and Sam were in your room together – did you like that voice? 

Mendoza: As Jennifer asked the question, she took each of Sean's hands. And then she gently shook each hand while saying an answer out loud. So the left hand was:

Jennifer: I did like that voice. 

Mendoza: And the right hand: 

Jennifer: No, I did not like that voice very much, really.

Mendoza: Sean responded by dropping his right hand, so that his left was still up. Which meant that he did like it.

Jennifer: I am very curious, Sean, if that voice sounds like your own voice to you. “It does sound like my voice. That's the voice I hear when I talk to myself.” “No, it does not sound like my voice yet.” 

Mendoza: That’s Jennifer giving Sean options again.

Peng: And Sean’s answer: 

Jennifer: It does not sound like your voice yet. That's OK. You know what? We are still working on it.

Peng: Using the same method, Jennifer asked Sean what he thought about different features of the voice, like speed and clarity. It turned out the main thing Sean wanted to tweak was his pitch.

Jennifer: And that means how much variety there is in the voice. Like highs and lows. Is there not enough high and low…or too much high and low? There's not enough high and low. OK. These are important things to know.


Jennifer: Really for me, I was the one who had the most suggestions. Probably because, as their mom, I have a voice in my head. And so I was trying to get as close to that as possible. 

Peng: Do you ever feel like, oh, maybe I'm, I'm giving too much influence on his voice (Jennifer: Oh yeah!) than what he wants for himself?

Jennifer: Not only with his voice, but with everything. When your children are small, you do everything for them. You think you know what's best for them, and maybe when they were small, maybe I did. But as they get older, the whole thing for me to do is to step out of their way. This is a tough thing as a parent, and especially a parent of someone with a disability whom I have an even bigger impulse to protect, and feel like I know what’s best. But I don’t. Sean knows what’s best for him. Sean knows what voice is his voice. 

Mendoza: Finally, we asked Sean what he liked most about getting a personalized voice. Jennifer identified four things Sean was excited about.

Jennifer: That your voice will sound like you, that your voice is unique, that you helped to make your voice, that Sam helped to make your voice.

Peng: Then she wrote these things down and showed the options to Sean.

Jennifer: I think you're looking down here. And that one is “I helped to make my voice.”


Peng: Before we left, we got to share a very special moment with Sean. He really loves music, and loves it when his parents sing to him.

[The Boyle family is singing.]

Mendoza: Neil held him in his arms. And Sean had this big smile on his face as he sang along. 

[Sean vocalizes.]

Mendoza: I just want to say, Jing, I was so touched by that experience. It just made me think again of what Larry said earlier. Our guest from Australia. Voice is important to who we are, but it's not everything. And after all these weeks where we’re trying to understand what our voices say about us, it just felt really meaningful to me to remember that everyone's experience is different. None of us are just one thing. We are how we sound – but we're more than that, too, you know?

Peng: Yeah, and you know, hearing Sean’s physical voice – I know that it could be hard to understand, especially for people who don’t know him well. But it’s still a voice that has value and power, and allows him to communicate his joy and his thoughts. 

Mendoza: Yeah.


Mendoza: So Jing. This is it. Any final words?

Peng: I feel like over the past months, I’ve learned so much about how we sound. And how we listen, and why that matters.

Mendoza: Of course! So clever.

Peng: But really I still feel like I know so little. And just hearing my own voice now. It’s this incredible thing that comes out of me, and helps me communicate, express different things. It does all these things for me. It’s really one of the biggest things in my life. But we rarely think of it that way. I mean, I think about it a lot more these days.

Mendoza: Has anything changed about the way you think about your voice, or even how we sound in general?

Peng: Yeah! I've become more sensitive to times when people express that they don’t like the way someone sounds, because sometimes you’re really talking about more than the way they sound. And for the listener, it’s a very impactful thing to hear. Because it can very easily be or feel like a judgment of your person. 

Mendoza: I actually feel like it’s happening more often that I catch myself in situations where I can feel myself about to make a judgment about the way someone is talking. And then I feel like I have to hit a pause button in my brain. And I’m asking myself first, “Okay, Jess, can you understand them?” And if the answer is yes, then what does it matter how they’re saying these words?

Peng: It’s a great button to have. 

Mendoza: And I’m hopeful it’s a button that sticks around, that I make a habit of it. Because then it will feel like I’m moving forward from this project having learned something. But beyond that, Jing, I’ve really enjoyed this journey, it’s been a lot of self-reflection. Some of it has been pretty heavy, but it’s been such a great adventure doing this project with you, Jing!

Peng: Oh my god. Remote hugs to you, Jess. And to all of you out there – we definitely still want to hear from you. If you have any comments, questions, or stories you want to share, you can send us a note at podcast@csmonitor.com. We really want to keep talking about it.

Mendoza: Season 2… Season 2….

Peng: I hope so! 

Mendoza: But a break first, I think. 


Mendoza: So one last time: This podcast was written, reported and produced by me, Jessica Mendoza.

Peng: And me, Jingnan Peng.

Mendoza: Our scripts were edited by Clay Collins, Trudy Palmer, and Samantha Laine Perfas. Sam also provided production support. Our sensitivity reader for this episode was Laken Brooks. 

Peng: Our logo was designed by Jacob Turcotte. The artist behind the incredible illustrations on our site is Jules Struck. You can check out her work at csmonitor.com/saythatagain. And sound design for the series was by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt.

Mendoza: This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2022.