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'It's amazing' - mum fighting MND gets voice app to speak with her kids

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Roisin Foley uses the voice app with two of her children, Sadie and Rosie on the RTE programme

Roisin Foley uses the voice app with two of her children, Sadie and Rosie on the RTE programme

Roisin Foley uses the voice app with two of her children, Sadie and Rosie on the RTE programme

A young mother losing her voice because of motor neurone disease (MND) has been given a unique way to chat with her children by some of Ireland's top scientists.

The speech of Crumlin mother Roisin Foley - full of warmth and peppered with her own quintessentially Dublin humour - has been steadily deteriorating since she was diagnosed with the condition nearly two years ago.

The single mother (32) features in a moving episode of the RTE series Big Life Fix, the programme which sees leading designers, engineers, computer programmers and technology experts creating inventions that will transform people's lives.

Affectionate

Stephen Hawking famously used a computer-generated voice to communicate, but two Irish scientists - inventor Trevor Vaugh and electronics engineer Chiara Cavarra - came up with a way to capture Roisin's own voice in a special app with remarkable 21st-century features.

Much of the speech on the unique iPad app uses recordings of her own voice so she can 'speak' to her three young children, Rosie, Rachel and Sadie.

The app picks up where Roisin is in the house and when she moves into the kitchen pops up with appropriate phrases such as: "I'll have a cup of tea."

The most important part of the app is the ground-breaking way it links Roisin to her three daughters through the use of special app-connected bracelets on their arms. Affectionate phrases pop up whenever the children approach their mother. One such phrase is "Give me a hug", which pops up on the screen as a button she can press.

"It's amazing what you have done," says Roisin on the programme.

She said the first sign she had of the disease was when she began dropping plates and cutting her fingers while peeling vegetables. "I knew that Stephen Hawking had it, but other than that I didn't have any personal experience", she said.

"The life expectancy is generally two to five years, that's 90pc of people. The muscle wastage has started.

"My voice has started to change, especially in the evening time and my words have begun to slur." She says "chatting to the kids" is the "main loss".

"Having the kids, there's not time to sit around wallowing. That's what you get up for and that's what you keep going for," she said. "It is upsetting to know I might not be here, but I just enjoy what I have with them now."

In recent months the illness has begun to affect the muscles around Roisin's lungs. This means that a few times a day she has to spend time on a breathing machine. When her voice began to weaken the scientists stepped in with a special recording device to pick up all her 'Roisinisms'.

Designer Trevor Vaugh said: "She loves to talk. She's very chatty, she's very social. We had to capture as much as Roisin as we can. We wanted to get all those things: the curses, the swears, the nicknames, the turns of phrase. This woman at a certain point in the future will not be able to say another word out of her mouth and what we do will allow her to communicate in some way."

They also put Roisin's voice into the app and blended it with an artificial voice to allow her to say new phrases or sentences at the touch of a button.

"This is Roisin combined with Steven Hawking," said her brother.

Eventually Roisin will lose the use of her hands, but head-tracking software will allow her to continue to use the app.

"It's very new technology but it's all about using the camera on this to control the iPad", said Trevor. "Even though it's only 800 phrases, it's so Roisin. You can just hear her in it. It was our honour.

Tough

"What they've been through and what's coming is extremely tough and [you do] anything you can do to make that a little bit easier."

Her father said: "We need to hear her voice for as long as we can. It's essential isn't it? It's what you are. The old automated voice that was there beforehand, a lot of people just didn't respond and didn't use it.

"A lot of people didn't think it reflected them but this is a different level altogether. She deserves it and needs it," he added.

Her mother said her daughter had kept the whole family going since her diagnosis.

"It's heartbreaking, but she is an inspiration. It will just be great to hear her voice in years to come," she said.

Big Life Fix will be shown tonight on RTE One at 9.35pm