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Poet with cerebral palsy debuts her work using new speech augmentation, Voz Box

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Launchbox Poetry Reading

Arlyn Edelstein, of State College PA, giving a poetry reading at Launchbox, 224 S Allen Street, on Wednesday September 28, 2016.

Her left foot maneuvered a pedal as she put together a series of words that would reach the ears of an audience for the first time.

Pennsylvania Poet-Advocate Arlyn Edelstein, who has nonverbal cerebral palsy, used a newly patented speech augmentation device called the Voz Box to share a selection of her work in her first public poetry reading on Wednesday at the Happy Valley LaunchBox.

Normally unable to speak, Edelstein recited her poetry using a sensor on her foot pedal, which worked with an interconnected earpiece to construct sentences and phrases.

Her theme, “My Voice, My Power,” underscored the evening’s mood as she recited her poetry, which spanned a wealth of topics involving nature and everyday life, and were often influenced by her life with cerebral palsy.

“Like nature, people are made by the creator,” Edelstein recited, “and so they deserve my respect until the stars put a peaceful end to another day.”

The recital marked the first time the Voz Box and Edelstein’s poetry were shared with the public. Elizabeth McCulloch, a recent Penn State graduate and the inventor of the Voz Box, said she has been collaborating with Edelstein since July.

“I never thought that I would have the opportunity of having people hear my work,” Edelstein said.

Edelstein, a 1979 graduate of Edinboro University, has been writing poems since she was seven or eight years old, McCulloch said. The two of them met when Edelstein’s nephew contacted McCulloch after viewing an article about her invention.

“We were trying out different sensors,” McCulloch said. “And we kind of stuck with the design we’re working with now.”

She said she conceived the idea for the Voz Box after spending time as an exchange student in Ecuador a few years ago.

While in Ecuador, McCulloch volunteered with children with nonverbal cerebral palsy, whom she communicated with mostly by asking them “yes” or “no” questions. Soon after, she was inspired to create a device that would allow them to communicate more efficiently.

Today, McCulloch has amassed a team of engineers, interns and others who comprise Project Vive, a humanitarian effort dedicated to creating low cost speech generation devices such as the Voz Box.

Thomas Sharbaugh, director of the Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic, said the Voz Box is unprecedented as it offers people like Edelstein a means to communicate face-to-face while maintaining eye contact, which other devices can’t provide.

The Voz Box’s control mechanism is customizable to wherever the individual has the greatest amount of dexterity or strength, said Steph Rosenfeld, a volunteer for Project Vive. In Edelstein’s case, she uses a sensor through her left foot pedal, but others can use a mechanism focused on another body part, such as the hand, Rosenfeld said.

“They’ve developed a glove, a watch and even something that goes over your knee,” he said.

The Voz Box has won wide acclaim and is one of the featured small businesses at the Penn State LaunchBox accelerator, according to a Project Vive press release.

McCulloch said she and her team are working on making the device available to the wider public by spring 2017. After the success of Wednesday night’s reading, she said she and Edelstein plan to host additional readings in the future.

“It’s hard not to be excited about this as a member of the human race,” Rosenfeld said. “[Edelstein’s] level of courage and determination is absolutely remarkable.”

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Hyun Soo Lee is a community and borough reporter for The Daily Collegian. Follow him on Twitter at @hslee_ or email him at hxl217@psu.edu

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