A man with motor neurone disease has become the first person in the UK to be given a regional voice thanks to expert technology – so he can keep his much-loved Yorkshire accent.
Jason Liversidge, 41, was diagnosed with MND, a condition which affects cells that control muscle activity for walking, swallowing and talking, in 2013 and knew his talking days were numbered.
Since then, Jason, from Hull, East Yorks., has lost the ability to walk, now uses a chair and needs help with everyday tasks such as dressing, washing and eating.
But experts have stepped in to help relieve Jason’s fear of losing his distinctive Yorkshire accent – by creating a personalised voice synthesiser.
Experts at the Anne Rowling Clinic in Edinburgh have given people Scottish accents before, but Jason is believed to be the first person to be given a regional voice with this technology.
Jason, who is still leaning how to use the synthesiser which he’s had for a week, told the BBC: “It’s going to make the world of difference, as I know it’s me and therefore it’s a daily reminder of what I sounded like.
“it was really important that I banked my own voice and when I did for several reasons.
“My voice had to be largely intact and banking those donors was equally as important to have the best chance of getting my voice.
“This voice means so much to me as it is me and not a pre-programmed voice that could really be anyone.
“It’s amazing to know that my wife and children will still be able to talk to me and hear my voice back.”
Speaking about when he was given the diagnosis of MND, Jason said: “First of all, I didn’t believe it. It’s like your whole life flashes before you.
“I think it took about three weeks to get my head around it. But to be honest I think I’ve dealt with it really well.”
The Anne Rowling Clinic, which specialises in degenerative diseases, was set up by Harry Potter author JK Rowling whose mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,.
It is running a project which is trying to create personal synthetic voices, called Speak:Unique.
Jason’s speech is already starting to slur, but scientists aim to “repair” the flaws in it with the aid of donors.
The process involves finding people with a similar accent to read 400 phrases on to a computer, which can then be banked and broken down into sounds to recreate any word.
Jason’s wife, Elizabeth said: “When Jason was diagnosed with MND in 2013 we knew that 90 per cent of people with MND lose the ability to speak.
“Most people with MND have a computerised synthesised voice which is synonymous with Stephen Hawking but we didn’t want that for Jason.
“It was purely by accident that I came across a tweet about the clinic which said they were doing trials and we got in touch with them to bank Jason’s voice.
“It’s very important for the children as they’re very young and although they know daddy is poorly and they know the doctors can’t make him better they don’t realise that Jason will lose the ability to talk.”
Dr Phillipa Rewaj, who is working on the project, said: “Rather than trying to record every single word in the dictionary, we capture all those sounds so that we can use them in any other word in which they occur.
“Your voice is as identifiable to other people as your face is, it is very unique to you, so being able to preserve that I think is very important to people.”
She is using the video of a speech Mr Liversidge made at his sister’s wedding as a benchmark, and needs 20 to 30 “donors”, preferably from Scarborough where he grew up, to fill in the gaps.
The “new” voice created by the clinic will be controlled by Mr Liversidge using eye movements, focusing on letters to type out what he wants to say.
Nearly all the voices the clinic has worked on since it opened in 2011 have been Scottish, but Jason will be the first receiver of a Yorkshire accent.
The personalised voice equipment should be ready to use in a matter of months, once all the donor voices have been recorded.