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Intellect

BYU professors use device to teach speech to the deaf

‘Palatometer’ also useful in usual speech therapy and foreign language learning

A professor at Brigham Young University is using an innovative form of speech therapy to help those who have never spoken find their voice. Samuel Fletcher, of the Department of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology, has developed a program around a device called a palatometer to help the deaf master speech patterns.

“When hearing children learn to talk, they have to listen and reproduce sounds with their mouths,” said Fletcher. “The palatometer turns the oral actions into visual patterns, allowing deaf children to use their eyes in place of their ears to figure out what’s going on.”

The palatometer resembles an orthodontic retainer with a thin strip of packing tape extending from its front. The tape is actually a series of wires that are connected to 118 gold-plated sensors on the retainer. The wires run into a box hanging around the user’s neck, which collects and sends data to a computer. The computer’s screen displays two pictures – one of the roof of the mouth of a normal speaker and one of the learner. The sensors are represented on the screen as dots that change to circles in real time when the tongue touches them. The deaf person then learns to speak by imitating those patterns.

Fletcher first came up with the idea for the palatometer in 1971 while working with deaf children and realizing they would need something that went beyond lip-reading to help them learn to speak.

New research now suggests that part of the brain normally used for auditory functions can be converted to process visual information. That is, seeing can take over part of the area normally reserved for hearing, said Fletcher.

Over the summer, Fletcher had five students visit the speech clinic at BYU each week for speech therapy sessions using the palatometer. Christopher Dromey, a professor of speech pathology at BYU, said they’ve all made impressive progress.

“Normally people who are deaf are fluent in sign language and are involved in their own deaf culture. They sometimes hesitate – and some even find it offensive – when you suggest they learn how to speak,” Dromey said. “But if you consider speech for a deaf person as similar to being bilingual, some of that reluctance disappears. There are a number of deaf people who want to learn to speak, to open up the avenues for communication to so many more people.”

Dromey got involved when he accepted a position at BYU five years ago. Soon after his arrival he began to collaborate with Fletcher, who works at the university as an adjunct faculty member. Fletcher’s palatometer has been used not only to help deaf individuals learn to talk, but also to help people with speech impediments. Additionally, people trying to learn a new language have used the palatometer to help them correctly pronounce words.

Zachary Tritsch, a 15-year-old student of Fletcher’s, was born totally deaf and could speak only a few understandable words before his 14th birthday. He spent ten fruitless years in traditional speech therapy before his aunt, who is Fletcher’s neighbor, heard about Fletcher’s work.

“We had dinner at their house, and he showed me the palatometer,” said Frankie Cluff, Tritsch’s aunt. “He was unaware that I have a deaf nephew or that I am fluent in sign language. I immediately realized it was something that would be a tremendous blessing in Zachary’s life.”

Cluff, who was Tritsch’s interpreter in school, set up a time for Tritsch to try the new treatment.

“He wanted to be able to talk so he could ask a girl to go on a date without the fuss of dragging along a notebook and a pen,” Fletcher said.

Tritsch began therapy with Fletcher this summer. His sessions lasted one hour and were held an intensive three times a day for five weeks. Interpreters, including his aunt, would sign a sound, word or phrase. A graduate student in speech-language pathology or Fletcher, who were wearing palatometers in their own mouths, would then say what was signed. Tritsch watched the computer screen, saw how the tongue touched the roof of the mouth for the sounds and tried to mimic it.

“When we started he could only form lip sounds,” said Fletcher. “After four and a half weeks of training, he had a rather large, understandable spoken vocabulary.”

And after just five and a half weeks of work, Tritsch could, among other things, introduce himself, order his own food at restaurants and read with his parents at night. He even led a group in singing “Happy Birthday” at his 15th birthday party.

“He did incredibly well,” Cluff said. “He can now make all of the sounds in the language. Now he’s working on how to apply them. English is hard because things aren’t spelled as they sound, so he’s taking it word by word, learning how to say them all.”

“Zachary is very pleased with the results so far,” Cluff said, adding that she thinks the palatometer presents an incredible opportunity for the deaf. “To be able to speak and be understood helps them be so much more independent. I would love to see it catch hold and be used throughout the deaf community.”

To that end, Fletcher started a small business in Arizona called LogoMetrix, Logo meaning “the word” and Metrix meaning “measure,” to produce and sell the product to speech therapists. Fletcher, however, stays in Utah and leaves the business mainly to others.

“I realized that my time must continue to be devoted to the research still needed to take advantage of the new instrumentation.”

More information about the palatometer can be found on the LogoMetrix Web site at www.logometrix.org.

Writer: Anthony Strike

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