A 24-year-old Liberal Arts student with nonverbal autism from Winter Park, Florida gave the most inspiring valedictory speech when she urged fellow graduates last May 8 to be the light for others through their God-given voice.
In a video shared by Rollins College on Facebook on May 9, Elizabeth Bonker is shown receiving a standing ovation after giving her valedictorian address. The video has been viewed 106,000 times with 1,300 positive reactions.
"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," Bonker said.
News Channel 8 reported that Bonker was among four students who received valedictorian honors. Bonker was nominated to deliver her commencement speech, which she did without even saying a word. The valedictorian was aided by text-to-speech software in delivering her address.
While NPR explained that Bonker is unable to speak since she was 15 months old. CBN News added that the valedictorian was actually born healthy and able to speak. Things changed when she became a toddler and lost her speech, which doctors from Yale Medical School attributed to autism.
The Hardships Of A Valedictorian With Autism
According to the transcript, Bonker began her speech by thanking fellow valedictorians for the honor of addressing them. The valedictorian highlighted the shared achievement of graduating from the college's 2022 class but emphasized hers was special because of her autism.
Bonker, who has an English minor and a social innovation major, shared that her autism prevented her not only from speaking but also from other neuromotor issues such as buttoning a shirt or tying her shoes that required assistance for her to achieve. She revealed that she is one of a few non-speaking autistics that were taught to type. She raised this was a critical intervention that enabled her mind to be unlocked from its silent cage. She likened herself to her hero, Helen Keller, because learning to type enabled her to be educated and communicate.
Described by her school as an activist and lyricist, Bonker recalled her freshmen year when an alumnus, Mister Rogers, was found dead with a handwritten note in his wallet that said, "Life is for service." This simple yet profound service, she stressed, is what Rollins has instilled in all of its students.
The valedictorian then cited Nazi concentration camp writer Viktor Frankl who spoke of the freedom to choose one's attitude at any given set of circumstances that can not be robbed from a man after everything has been taken from him. Bonker emphasized that this freedom is endowed to all, highlighting her life-long struggle of not being heard or accepted.
The Dream Of A Valedictorian With Autism
Bonker, who has already given a TEDMED talk, recalled being mentioned on the front page of a local newspaper. The publication quoted her high school principal in referring to her that "the retard can't be valedictorian." She highlighted the lie in those statements and focused on her decision to celebrate small victories instead. She then underscored the fundamental human right to choose and that it is worth defending for every individual.
As they move forward in life using their right to choose, Bonker likened herself to Martin Luther King, Jr. who has a dream, except that hers involved communication. The Communication 4 ALL founder said she dreams for the 31 million non-speakers with autism who have been locked in a silent cage. She disclosed that she will dedicate her life to them by "giving them voices to choose their own way." She then hoped that her fellow graduates would also choose to live a life of service for others because "the world can't wait to see our light shine."
"Be those people. Be the light! Fiat lux," Bonker concluded.