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Isolated twins now talking to world thanks to student project

Identical twins Ben and Joe Styles have the power of speech but otherwise are severely physically disabled.

The brothers suffer with muscular dystrophy, which involves spending 20 hours a day on ventilators to help them breathe.

But the ventilators, which mask their faces from forehead to chin, rob them of their ability to speak.

The 24-year-olds from Castlebar, Co Mayo, are wheelchair and house-bound, because of their debilitating and terminal muscle-wasting disease.

Now their life of isolation has been transformed and the brothers are talking to family and friends through Skype and Facebook.

It's all thanks to a student at the local Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). Through the work of Jenny Parkes, the twins now communicate via their computers through a high-quality mouse-operated camera and voice recognition software.

A microphone attached to a band around the brothers' throats picks up their words and transmits them to the voice recognition software.

"They can do everything -- open the browser, cut and paste, send a message," said Jenny, a mature student, who has dyslexia.

Jenny and her GMIT lecturers, Noreen Henry and Sharon Boyle, are now collaborating with US researcher Freddie Feldman on a more sophisticated microphone system, which will eliminate all background noise. Their mother, Diane said: "It was very hard on the lads trying to communicate on the ventilator.

"This has opened up so many windows. Now they are speaking to people around the world."

It all started when the brothers, who had some basic computing skills, expressed a desire to get involved in a learning project of some kind.

The Western Region National Advocacy Service contacted GMIT, where Jenny, a former care worker with an interest in technologies for people with a disability, was looking to undertake a project as part of her Information Technology Support course.

Now the brothers are planning to design their own website for others in similar situations.

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