When Judy Crane's teenage daughter asked her to write an absence note for school, she couldn't do it. The words were there—in her mind—but wouldn't form on paper.
Crane was recovering from aphasia, a communication disorder that usually results from damage in the language-control parts of the brain. People with aphasia often struggle with speaking, reading, writing, and comprehension. Hers formed as a complication from a stroke, suffered during a surgery in 2005 to replace her aortic valve. She was 47 at the time, and in her words, at the height of her career in medical sales. Suddenly, she was unable to do her communication-heavy job.
The National Aphasia Association estimates that approximately two million individuals suffer from aphasia in the United States, but there are few assistive technologies on the market specifically for aphasia sufferers. Crane used programs piecemeal during her recovery, such as the Dragon dictation software, predictive texting, or speech-to-text in a notetaking app on her phone.
Launched April 28 by Samsung Electronics Italia, Wemogee targets patients specifically where dictation and predictive text apps don't. It's an emoji-to-text translator: On one end, someone types a string of emoji or pre-set "sentences," such as a smiley face followed by a thumbs-up and a question mark. The other person receives the meaning in text form: "How are you?" The app is available now on Google Play and coming soon to iOS, but the Android version seems to be a bit glitchy, based on early reviews.
The app is based on a library of more than 140 phrases, in consultation with speech therapists and neuroscientists, according to the Wemogee website.
For Crane, losing the ability to write while her mind raced away was especially frustrating. "All I really wanted to be able to do was tell my story, about what had just happened to me," she told me over the phone. "It can be very, very isolating, and anything that could help somebody get words out, I think would be wonderful."
I asked Crane—someone who has 12 years of aphasia recovery experience and now helps run a peer counseling group for other stroke survivors—what she thought of this app. Is it just an emoji-based gimmick, or are emoji destined to become a language in its own right after all?
"To be honest with you, I've never really paid much attention at all those little symbols, unless it was somebody's birthday or something like that," she said. But friends from her support group came to mind: people who otherwise might retreat into an internal world when communicating became too difficult. It's vital that aphasia sufferers keep talking, no matter what.
"If it's that they can put these symbols up and get their point across, and it keeps them from being isolated, I say we should do it," Crane said. Twelve years after her stroke, she's able to send emails, read, hold fulfilling conversations. If they needed, she'd be able to write a school note for her kids. Technology helped, in part, but the assistive technology industry could do better. "We need to be able to help people in whatever way we can, so they don't stop talking."
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