DIGITAL ACCESSIBILITY

Maria Terracina’s story: ‘Thanks to artificial intelligence I found my voice again’

by Marianne Rodger

Maria Terracina has dark, piercing Sicilian eyes and exudes energy. She could not speak and communicate her curiosity and hunger for life using only her body. Maria, however, feels like talking! And to continue doing her work in Global Supply Chain Procurement at Pfizer, which leads her to have relationships and interact with colleagues and suppliers all over the world.

In 2018 laryngeal cancer changed her voice, but not her attitude. Within three years, two more tumours appeared, including a more serious one that affected both the vocal cords and the epiglottis, so a laryngectomy, with the total removal of the vocal cords, was necessary. ‘My work is based on communication. I negotiate and am an innovation coach, and I also love being a tour guide, but without the ability to speak what could I do? I was afraid that I could no longer communicate in a way that was appropriate for my role at Pfizer, and I wondered if my disability would allow me to continue to express myself in my work and life.’ There could be – had to be – a solution. Maria’s words emerge, crystal clear, from a microphone attached to her computer that allows her to communicate.

‘After unsuccessfully searching for solutions using various types of voice-changing software, I contacted a colleague of mine in the technology office to see if there might be a possibility of developing a solution that would allow me to be heard and understood. There are many digital assistive technologies today, but none work for a laryngeal voice like mine that lacks frequency variability.’

Maria’s colleagues from Italy and abroad, whether they had any relevant experience or not, all rallied to try to help her in any way they could. ‘I never imagined I would find so much empathy and inclusion in all of my colleagues at Pfizer. I am lucky to work for a large company that is so attentive to its employees and their diverse needs. My journey would have been very different if I had not been working here. Having the opportunity to work with suppliers with this voice is, for me, an example of what respect for diversity and inclusion means.’

In the course of her research, Maria came into contact with Professor Antonio Liotta of the University of Bolzano.

Thanks to Dr Liotta, she discovered that the right solution for her, and for other people like her, could be developed through cutting-edge artificial intelligence techniques that enable voice synthesis in real time; however, this requires considerable research to develop the appropriate tools, which requires extensive resources that are currently unavailable.

Meanwhile, in December 2021, a team of volunteers from Pfizer’s Digital Enterprise Platforms & Security came together to document and raise awareness of the use of digital assistive technologies, to allow all employees equal access to the technologies and give everyone the same development and career opportunities. In April 2022, the team completed their project, and today all employees of the US multinational pharmaceutical company have access to a digital catalogue that they can use to inquire about and request a wide variety of assistive technology devices for many types of visual, auditory, physical, and neurological impairments: from virtual keyboards, audio aids, digital Braille displays, voice modulation systems, and foot control systems for those who cannot use their hands, and video players.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which together with Unicef recently launched the Global Report on Assistive Technology, an estimated 2.5 billion people in the world need at least one health aid, and about 1 billion cannot access these devices.

The so-called ‘digital gap’ highlights a significant disparity between those who have and those who do not have access to information, with consequences not only for individuals but for society as a whole.

The Covid 19 pandemic accelerated a process that was already underway. We have seen that technology can help us find new ways of working and ensure that everyone can benefit by expressing their abilities. For Pfizer, this is also a part of protection and inclusion of all kinds of diversity; it also means going beyond medication and seeking innovations that change patients’ lives. Our mission is to work together for a healthier and more sustainable world, and that means taking a broader perspective, which also means being able to ensure equal employment opportunities with the help of technology.


Marianne Rodger

Diversity Equity & Inclusion Lead in Pfizer Italia

Spread inclusion all around the globe

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