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'God gave you a voice. Use it': Nonspeaking autistic valedictorian delivers powerful speech

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2 days ago Wyatte Grantham-Philips, USA TODAY
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In a Class of 2022 commencement ceremony last week, Rollins College valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker delivered a powerful speech calling for "communication for all."

Bonker is affected by nonspeaking autism, so she communicates by typing. At the Rollins' graduation ceremony in Florida on May 8, she used a text-to-speech computer program to deliver her address – where she also urged her fellow graduates to remember that, like the late Rollins alum Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" fame did, "Life is for service."

"God gave you a voice. Use it," Bonker, who received a degree in social innovation, told her graduating class of 529 students. "And no, the irony of a nonspeaking 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."

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In a call with Bonker and her mother, Virginia Breen, on Friday, Bonker responded to the reception of her speech – which has now resonated with people across the country.

"This commencement address was so important to me. I worked on it for months," Bonker told USA TODAY, answering questions by typing with one finger. She added that she has been "overwhelmed with gratitude" from the support she has received.

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Elizabeth Bonker (left) at Rollins College's commencement. © Courtesy of Rollins College Elizabeth Bonker (left) at Rollins College's commencement.

In her speech, Bonker thanked those at Rollins, including the "faculty, administrators, and staff who fed our brains and nurtured our souls" and her four fellow valedictorians, who unanimously elected Bonker to deliver the commencement speech.

Bonker also acknowledged the approximately 31 million nonspeaking autistic people worldwide. An estimated 40% of autistic people are nonspeaking, according to Autism Speaks.

"I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard," Bonker said in her commencement speech. "I am one of the lucky few nonspeaking 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."

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Bonker, who has been advocating for the rights of autistic individuals since the age of 13, is also the founder and executive director of Communication 4 ALL, a nonprofit that aims to ensure that communication is available to all people with autism who are nonspeaking, particularly in educational settings.

"My life mission is dedicated to gaining communication for all 31 million nonspeakers with autism worldwide. And it will start with students in school," Bonker told USA TODAY. "We can change the way the world sees nonspeaking autism. It is a neuromotor disorder, not a cognitive one."

"Her dream is that every nonspeaker in school has this ability. So it's not just for those who can afford it … it's really about it being a civil right," added Breen, Bonker's mother. "Elizabeth believes that every single person with nonspeaking autism can type. Every single one."

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Elizabeth Bonker at Rollins College © Scott Cook Photography, Courtesy of Rollins College Elizabeth Bonker at Rollins College

But when it comes to action and accessibility realities in most classrooms, despite the American Disability Act stating that people with communication disorders should be guaranteed effective communication, "nonspeakers have been left behind," Breen said.

Bonker is also a poet and lyricist. She published the book "I Am In Here" in 2011 and in April, Bonker released the first two songs of her "I Am In Here" album, “I Am in Here” and “Silent Cage” – for which Bonker wrote the lyrics and The Bleeding Hearts, a Boston-based band, performed and wrote the music.

After graduation, Bonker plans to continue her career in music, work at Communication 4 ALL and advocate for nonspeaking people with autism everywhere.

"I hope that we are creating a movement of autistics and allies to give everyone a voice," Bonker noted.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'God gave you a voice. Use it': Nonspeaking autistic valedictorian delivers powerful speech

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