Updated: July 12, 2021 8:29:07 am
“My everyday life was being controlled by stuttering and it really achieved astronomical proportions in my last year of college, when I had to sit for interviews,” Meet Singhal, who is behind the speech therapy app Stamurai, narrates his struggles with stuttering and how it impacted his day-to-day life.
It was in 2019 that IIT-Delhi graduates Singhal, Anshul Agarwal and Harsh Tyagi started developing the Stamurai app. According to the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders, stuttering is a “speech disorder characterised by repetition of sounds, syllables, or words; prolongation of sounds; and interruption of speech known as blocks”. Those who stutter can be fluent, but also struggle to communicate at times. Over 70 million people worldwide stutter and about 15 million Indians have some form of speech disorder. Stuttering usually develops in early childhood, between the ages of two and four.
“We came up with this idea that maybe we can codify the entire experience, and in the process, make speech therapy accessible, affordable and high quality for everyone,” Singhal tells indianexpress.com in a phone interview. “Stuttering not only affects a person’s speech but also has a profound impact on his emotional state.”
Stuttering is incurable, though through various speech therapy exercises one can reduce the number of disfluencies in the speech and help win back the confidence in the patient. “In the traditional offline speech therapy setup, the way it works is that you go to a speech therapist, you have sessions for a few times, and you see an improvement in fluency in quality of life but once those sessions end over 80 per cent of the people relapse back to their behavior,” Singhal explains why continued practice is the only to “get better” with your speech.
While speech therapy can be effective at times, as Singhal pointed out, the cost of attending sessions can be expensive, costing anywhere between Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 for a six to one-year course. On top of that, India has just 4000 therapists and there is a huge demand-supply gap that only a tech solution can address.
“If I were to teach you a fluency exercise, and ask you to go out there and practice it with your friends, it won’t work because you will be so scared to go out there and practice. Many of these exercises involve you speaking in a new way,” Singhal tries to explain why the traditional way of speech therapy scares many over the fear of shame in front of others.
Singhal’s solution, an app, not only helps bring the cost down but also automates parts of speech therapy. “The ideal way of speech therapy happens is you go through a hierarchy of situations, where you start applying the strategies that you have learned in easy situations, and slowly move on to more difficult ones. Once you gain confidence in that process, new strategies are introduced to you.”
“The biggest challenge that we had in mind was that would a user come on to an app, and practice for 30 minutes or one hour for the speech exercises, because unlike watching the movie on Netflix, or a social media feed, this is not an inherently pleasurable experience,” Singhal explains. “This app is like a home practice school for you and is relevant for all age groups.”
Initially, the app was basic in nature but over time Singhal and the team have improved the clinical functionality and user experience. “We wanted to build the app and use it for ourselves but we started seeing organic growth when the app got published on Google Play Store,” he said. The Stamurai app, which is available on both Android and iOS platforms, has been downloaded over 60,000 times till date.
The speech therapy app uses the freemium business model, a mix of free and premium. This means the app is free to download but offers some paid, value-add services to support the business. What makes this app different from traditional speech therapy is that you can practice exercises on your own at any time of the day, without needing to go to a speech therapist. “We have created a customised training plan for you,” he said, adding that these exercises are a combination of instructional videos.
The app offers over 30 tools to help people practice those exercises, out of which five or six are free to use. Users can also interact with specialist speech therapists for individualised attention but again that is a part of the subscription, which can cost Rs 3000 a year or Rs 1000 per month. The community angle has been given special emphasis in the Stamurai app, where users can interact with other people on a video call and share their life experiences and the changes they have seen while going through the speech exercises.
Although India remains the most important market for Stamurai, Singhal says he has seen users coming from the US, UK, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In the coming months, the team plans to expand the reach of the app by adding Hindi, Tamil and Spanish language support. Stamurai’s paid subscribers spend around 10 minutes on average each day practicing the exercises, according to Singhal, who himself spends up to 30 minutes on the app to reduce his stuttering.
“I am still a person who stutters in situations. But the quality of life that I have is much better than it used to be earlier,” Singhal said, who has been practicing speech exercises for the past seven years now.
Even though the Stamurai app has been received well by its users, Singhal admits the team is constantly looking at adding new features. Based on over 2000 hours of users’ speech data, the company plans to build an algorithm that can identify portions of speech, which are stuttered versus those that are fluent. That way it will be possible to give users real-time feedback as to whether these speech exercises they are doing are making an impact on their fluency over a course of time. In the future, the young startup also plans to expand beyond stuttering and look into other speech disorders that are affecting millions of users.
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