Feds Spend $30,257 to Help Transgenders Change Their Voice

Study creating app for transgender voice training

pride parade
Getty Images
August 13, 2018

The National Institutes of Health is spending over $30,000 to develop an app that provides voice coaching for transgender individuals.

The funding is going towards a thesis project of a PhD student at Northeastern University, whose computer work is "primarily motivated by social justice issues."

"Voice training is a complex clinical practice that involves collaboration with a speech therapist to determine an individual's needs and goals," according to the grant for the project. "It typically consists of personalized sessions that support individuals in changing their voices (such as modifying pitch, resonance, or speech patterns)."

"The reasons why people may pursue voice training are varied, but often includes discomfort with voice being misaligned with gender identity," the grant states. "People may experience pressure to conform to a certain type of voice, and training may be inaccessible due to health disparities in particular minority populations."

The app is specifically targeted for transgender individuals who need voice coaching.

"I am interested in the prospect of meeting and building relationships with trans people, and translating their varied experiences into a design for an app that will cater to our needs," said Alex A. Ahmed, the PhD student who received the grant.

"My goal is to contribute to a growing, but still small, field of human-computer interaction research that is primarily motivated by social justice issues," Ahmed said.

Ahmed has published several papers, including, "Beyond Diversity," last month, in which the PhD student argues students face "multiple oppressions" in academia, including, "homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, anti-Blackness, and intersections of all these."

"There is a rapidly growing appreciation that diversity is a Problem That Must Be Solved in computing; as an example, despite women earning 57 [percent] of undergraduate degrees in the U.S., we earn only 18 [percent] of degrees in computer and information sciences," Ahmed writes. "But it is not just about women: academics facing multiple oppressions—homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, anti-Blackness, and intersections of all these—have much to say about the often-entrenched views of the 'old guard' and the institutions they control."

Ahmed also authored a study that explored the idea of a voice coaching app for trans individuals, published in November 2017 in Interacting with Computers, an Oxford journal.

Ahmed argues "social justice" computing is based too much on feminist theory, and not enough on the "lived experiences of transgender people."

"Increasing attention is being paid to applications of [human-computer interaction] HCI that center on identity and social justice," Ahmed writes. "Much of this work is influenced by Feminist HCI, a set of design orientations that critique dominant research paradigms and support the development of systems informed by feminist theory. However, the field has largely ignored the lived experiences of transgender people."

"I review the sociopolitical context of this issue, focusing on feminism's exclusion of trans people and critical health disparities in our population," Ahmed continues. "I then present formative qualitative work in the domain of voice training for trans individuals."

Ahmed said gender norms must be countered for "trans-inclusive" designs.

"Interview participants expressed frustration with prescriptive gender norms and revealed opportunities for a personalized health technology that counteracts these norms," Ahmed writes. "Specically [sic], it could adapt to their goals and provide actionable feedback without judgment or reference to gender stereotypes. From these insights, I propose 'trans competent interaction design' as a starting point for trans-inclusive design practices."

The thesis project has received $30,257 from taxpayers so far. Research, which began last month, will continue through June 2020.

Published under: Government Spending