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Non-speaking valedictorian with autism gives powerful graduation speech

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  • Rollins College Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker gave a powerful speech early last week.
  • Bonker is affected by non-speaking autism, so she used a text-to-speech computer program to deliver her speech.
  • Bonker says she dreams of “communication for all” and has been “overwhelmed with gratitude” by the support she has received.

At a class of 2022 commencement ceremony last week, Rollins College valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker gave a powerful speech calling for “communication for all”.

Bonker has non-speaking autism, so she communicates by typing. At Rollins’ graduation ceremony in Florida on May 8, she used a text-to-speech computer program to deliver her speech – where she also urged fellow graduates to remember that, like the late famous Rollins alum Fred Rogers of Renamed “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” did, “Life is for service.”

“God gave you a voice. Use it,” said Bonker, who earned a degree in social innovation. Told its class of 529 students. “And no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice doesn’t escape me. Because if you can see the value in me, then you can see the value in everyone you meet. .”

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

“That start address was so important to me. I worked on it for months,” Bonker told USA TODAY, answering questions with one finger taps. She added that she was “overwhelmed with gratitude” for the support she received.

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Elizabeth Bonker (left) at the opening of Rollins College.

In his speech, Bonker thanked those of Rollins – including “the faculty, trustees and staff who have fed our brains and nourished our souls” and his four fellow valedictorians, who unanimously elected Bonker to deliver the opening speech.

Bonker also acknowledged the remarks 31 million people autistic people who don’t speak around the world. An estimated 40% of people with autism are non-verbal, according to autism speaks.

“I typed this speech with one finger with a comms partner holding a keyboard,” Bonker said in his opening speech. “I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistic people who was taught to type. This critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, allowing me to communicate and be educated like my heroine Helen Keller.”

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Bonker, who has been an autism rights advocate since age 13, is also the founder and executive director of Communication 4 ALLa non-profit association that aims to make communication accessible to all non-speakers with autism, particularly in schools.

“My life mission is dedicated to communicating for the 31 million non-speakers with autism around the world. And that will start with students in school,” Bonker told USA TODAY. “We can change the way the world views non-speaking autism. It’s a neuromotor disorder, not a cognitive disorder.”

“His dream is for every non-speaker in school to have this ability. So it’s not just for those who can afford it…it’s really a civil right,” added Breen, Breen’s mother. Bonker. “Elizabeth thinks every non-speaking autistic person can type. Everyone.”

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Elizabeth Bonker at Rollins College

But when it comes to action and the realities of accessibility in most classrooms, despite the United States Disability Act stating that people with communication disabilities should be guaranteed effective communication, “non-speakers have been left behind,” Breen said.

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

After graduation, Bonker plans to pursue a career in music, working at Communication 4 ALL and advocating for non-speaking people with autism around the world.

“I hope we create a movement of autistic people and allies to give everyone a voice,” Bonker noted.