The voice can be a source of physical and emotional stress. “It can exacerbate anxiety and depression,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, a web developer and PhD student at Northeastern University, spoke at Research Initiative, Ethics and Society Seminar Series, and Gender and Science Talk Series Wednesday click zoom. Ahmed spoke about her research and development of a voice training app for transgender people that she designed Spectra Project. In this event she discussed different applications of voice training, considered their framework and discussed their effectiveness and how they work.
Ahmed explained how she and a community team of about 20 members created Project Spectra over the course of a year and a half.
“Our first goal was to ensure, that users feel that their choices and identities are respected and validated,” Ahmed said. “People can customize the app with their own names and specific goals for voice training, which can include a presentation goal, which recognizes or attempts to recognize the fact that identities are flexible and ever-changing.”
Ahmed and her team are using their research and monitoring for other audio training applications to create the most effective and comprehensive tool to date. According to Ahmed, Spectra also allows users to see their progress, due to a numbered pitch meter that lets them know if they are close to their goals or not. Compared to other apps, which use gendered language, Ahmed said this method of reading data is less discouraging and enforcing.
“We are collaboratively trying to create a free app that can be a departure from the malicious elements of other apps with mixed results,” Ahmed said. “We were also putting ourselves in this. What do we want? What might we find useful in this?”
Instead of having to pay one speech therapist, Spectra offers free daily exercises. In addition to these exercises, the team focused heavily on users who avoid straining their voices. Ahmed said the app tries to do more than just tone correct, but also helps protect and strengthen users’ voices.
“So we had this focus, not on getting the right pitch, but on vocal strengthening exercises,” Ahmed said. “We’ve also done some other excellent exercises here, see what to do daily, and how much to do to avoid real vocal strain.”
During a study I asked a group of transgender people about their experiences and feelings with their voice and their gender. According to Ahmed, one participant “felt intimidated” by the need to physically express her gender. Ahmed said the post felt if she couldn’t move on right away “you’d suffer some consequences,” and so the transition took a long time. Ahmed added that due to the participation’s lack of gender affirmation resources, this affected her mental health.
According to Ahmed, comparing transgender people’s transformations in the media can lead to others being frustrated with their progress — they may feel like they’re a “failure.” That’s why it’s important to not only have accessible technology for gender confirmation, but also one that encourages growth and understanding, according to Ahmed.
“Everyone negotiates our own presentation or identity in our social environments,” Ahmed said. “But transgender people are the most likely to be punished for breaking the rules…so I concluded that any attempt to create technology in this space should prioritize flexibility and self-determination.”
When creating Project Spectra, Ahmed was inspired by the problems of voice training apps currently on the market. I compared several voice training apps, one of which gives users their vocal results as percentages of male, female, or neither. Ahmed said it is harmful to show progress in terms of whether a person is a sufficiently man or woman.
“It conjures up some harmful metaphors about transgender people being partly men, partly women, and partly both or partly not,” Ahmed said. “Essentially, rank people based on their presentation to determine how many are of each gender.”
In addition, this app uses donut charts that “are essentially pie charts, except for the inside is a cut-off,” causing a mismatch between the data and its visualization, according to Ahmed — which can ultimately confuse and discourage users.
The second app Ahmed gave as an example, created by transgender designers, looks at pitch ranges and depicts them as a spectrum. Ahmed claims that she “believes this was intentional on the part of the designers”. While the applications represent the scopes of the presentations in different charts, “both assure that the quantitative value of the presentation is important and relevant information.” Another app to look at is the EVA app, which allows users to get feedback directly from speech therapists in an audio commentary.
Ahmed said Project Spectra allows gay people to create a better, more inclusive world — a world that she and many gay people strive for.
“In order to form a pre-conceived picture of the world, we want to see it and create opportunities for a new organization,” Ahmed said. “To assert our ownership of technology, rather than just receiving whatever our tech tycoons want us to use.”