Elizabeth Bonker lost her ability to speak at the age of 15 due to autism and has been using a text-to-speech computer program to communicate.
A nonspeaking college valedictorian delivered a stirring commencement speech about using your voice. Elizabeth Bonker, who is graduating Rollins College, hasn't spoken since the age of 15 due to autism. "God gave you a voice. Use it," Elizabeth Bonker told the graduating class, with the help of a text-to-speech computer program on May 8. "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," she added. Bonker spoke about her won struggles with acceptance to inspire the graduating class at the private college in Winter Park, Florida, reported Good Morning America. "Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted," said Bonker.
"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.' 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." Bonker has been using typing to communicate since she lost her voice and used the same to deliver her inspiring speech to the college's 529 graduating students. Bonker graduated with a degree in social innovation and created her own nonprofit organization to make communication more accessible. According to the website, "Communication 4 ALL" works to "ensure that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education essential to living meaningful lives." The organization hopes to raise awareness through film, videos, and music. ”Our goal: to build awareness—and action—to ensure that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education essential to living meaningful lives," the website reads.
Bonker recalled a simple message from Fred Rogers, who graduated from Rollins College in 1951, that resonated with her. "During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mr. Rogers," said Bonker. "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." She urged all her friends to use their voices for the betterment of the community. "Whatever our life choices, each and every one of us can live a life of service — to our families, to our communities, and to the world. And the world can't wait to see our light shine."
She is also a poet and an author. Bonker penned "I Am In Here" a book documenting her journey as a child with autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. The CDC states around one in 44 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which describes the range of different ways autism may affect a person's ability to communicate, learn and interact with others. Bonker's Communication 4 ALL organization estimates that 40% of people with autism are non-speaking — 31 million worldwide.
She concluded her speech with a powerful message. "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,'" she said. Twitter users lauded her speech and her message resonated with many. "Thank you Ms. Bonkers… my son is a few years behind you and I was just about to give up on teaching him how to read text messages and sight words. He has periods when he wants to learn and then moments of watching YouTube all day. I hope you will find something to help him!" wrote one. "My 8-year-old son has non-verbal autism/hypoplasia of the corpus callosum, and I am weeping watching this speech. Congratulations Ms. Bonker. Your hard work has unlocked endless possibilities for yourself as well as others who follow your path," commented another.
You can watch her speech here: