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Nonspeaking valedictorian with autism urges peers to use their voices in moving graduation speech

Nonspeaking valedictorian with autism urges peers to use their voices in moving graduation speech

Explaining how typing helps her communicate, the 24-year-old said, 'That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and to be educated like my hero Helen Keller.'

In a moving commencement speech on May 8, a college valedictorian who is affected by nonspeaking autism urged her fellow graduates to use their own voices. According to Good Morning America, 24-year-old Elizabeth Bonker—who has not spoken since the age of 15 months—was unanimously chosen by her four fellow valedictorians to deliver the speech to the 529 graduating students of Rollins College, a private college in Winter Park, Florida. Using a text-to-speech computer program to deliver her speech, she told her peers: "God gave you a voice. Use it. And no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me. Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet."



 

In her commencement address, Bonker—who has used typing to communicate since losing her ability to speak—called on her fellow graduates to draw on the inspiration of Fred Rogers, who graduated from Rollins College in 1951. "Rollins College class of 2022, today we celebrate our shared achievements. I know something about shared achievements because I am affected by a form of autism that doesn't allow me to speak," she said. "My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without assistance. I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistics who have been taught to type. That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and to be educated like my hero Helen Keller."



 

"During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mister Rogers. When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, 'Life is for service.' You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound,"

Bonker continued. "Classmates, you have shared your passion for service within our community. Our friends in the sororities and fraternities raise money for so many worthy causes. Our friends at Pinehurst weave blankets for the homeless. The examples are too numerous to list. Rollins has instilled in all of us that service to others gives meaning to our own lives and to those we serve."



 

"We all have been given so much, including the freedom to choose our own way. Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted. A story on the front page of our local newspaper reported how the principal at my high school told a staff member, 'The retard can't be valedictorian,'" she stated. "Yet today, here I stand. Each day, I choose to celebrate small victories, and today, I am celebrating a big victory with all of you. The freedom to choose our own way is our fundamental human right, and it is a right worth defending, not just for us, but for every human being."



 

Bonker, who graduated with a degree in social innovation, is the founder of a nonprofit organization called Communication 4 ALL, which, according to its website, works to "ensure that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education essential to living meaningful lives." She is also a poet and author who wrote a book titled "I Am In Here," about her journey as a child with autism. "We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind," Bonker told her peers during her speech. "To see the worth in every person we serve. To strive to follow the example of those who chose to share their last crust of bread. For to whom much is given, much is expected."



 

"My fellow classmates, I leave you today with a quote from Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi encryption code to help win World War II. 'Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.' Be those people," she concluded. "Be the light!"

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