She gave a speech that brought people to their feet but she can't talk
How Elizabeth Bonker wowed her graduating class
Earlier this month, Elizabeth Bonker stood before her graduating class at Rollins College in Florida to give the valedictorian speech. But she never spoke a word.
Bonker is autistic and as such cannot speak. But that’s not to say she can’t communicate. Her speech, given by a woman’s voice reading the words Elizabeth had typed into text-to-speech software, brought the class to its feet.
“God gave you a voice. Use it,” she’d said. “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.”
Elizabeth’s words remind me of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children,” King had said.
Both ask people to consider their fellow human beings as people of value and to be treated with respect regardless of the color of their skin or, in Elizabeth’s case, differences. Why does our society struggle so with this notion? Be it fear, a lack of understanding or both, I wonder why we can’t try harder to comprehend others’ circumstances and those who are different from ourselves? Because the fact is, autism and disability, in general, are more prevalent than you might think.
Autism affects about one in 44 children in the U.S., 40% of whom are non-speaking, according to the National Autism Association. Only a fraction of those people have been given the opportunity to learn communication skills.
Elizabeth, who majored in social innovation, clearly recognizes her achievements are, in part, the result of people helping her learn how to communicate effectively. Even before she graduated, she founded and now leads Communication4All (or C4A), a nonprofit focused on championing efforts to ensure communication is available to all non-speakers with autism.
But she’s not just the founder of a nonprofit. Elizabeth writes song lyrics that have been recorded by the likes of guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. She was featured in the film In Our Own Hands: How patients are reinventing medicine and she’s been advocating for non-speakers with autism for more than a decade.
Not to sound all gushy or to propagate inspiration porn, but this young woman truly inspires me, not because she overcomes her challenges but because of her advocacy, passion and innovative approaches.
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine,” she told her class.
Well, Elizabeth, I imagine you have a lot to teach us and I, for one, look forward to learning from you.
Jodi Hausen is a freelance writer, reporter and photographer living in the mountain west of the U.S. She no longer feels stupid or insignificant.
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