Valedictorian With Non-Verbal Autism Gives Unforgettable College Commencement Speech

Earlier this month, 24-year-old Elizabeth Bonker stood onstage during her graduation from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and gave a rousing commencement speech that's now going viral. It was moving and filled with passion; heartfelt and relatable ... So what if she didn't speak a single word during the entire thing?

Bonker, who has non-verbal autism, hasn't actually spoken out loud since she was 15 months old. But incredibly, with the help of a computer and the support of her classmates and teachers, the college senior was still able to deliver a memorable speech that's now been heard by thousands.

After years of hard work, Bonker graduated at the top of her class this month

But that still didn't guarantee that she'd be chosen to give the commencement speech. According to NPR, Bonker was one of several valedictorians in her class but was handpicked by her classmates to speak on their behalf.

To do so, she used state-of-the-art text-to-speech software — an incredible tool that has helped her throughout her college experience.

"I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard," Bonker shared during the address. "I am one of the lucky few non-speaking 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."

The speech, which was titled "Be the Light," was read aloud by a computer-generated voice

It was also signed by an ASL interpreter, in hopes that Bonker's message would reach as many people as possible.

"God gave you a voice," she told her classmates at one point. "Use it."

"And, no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me," she added. "Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet."

During the speech, Bonker didn't hold back when sharing her personal story

And sadly, her journey to get here hasn't been easy.

“Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted," she admitted, alluding to the fact that she's often been viewed as "different" or "stupid" or "strange."

In fact, a recent story on the front page of her local newspaper even quoted her former high school principal, who reportedly told a staff member, "The r-tard can’t be valedictorian." (Yes, really.)

"Yet today, here I stand," Bonker announced proudly. And perhaps that is why her message is resonating so deeply now.

"The freedom to choose our own way is our fundamental human right, and it is a right worth defending — not just for us, but for every human being," she continued.

The world is now reacting to Bonker's moving speech

"People deserve a voice," tweeted one person, after listening to her speech. " ... this is one of the most amazing achievements of technology in our lifetime." "What an inspiration she is to us all," added someone else. "Thank you so much for sharing the amazing spirits that make America Strong."

"Bravo," another person tweeted. "Just because you can't speak doesn't mean you don't have a voice!"

After graduation, Bonker hopes to help others find their voice, too

Not only has she lauched a nonprofit called Communication 4 ALL, which provides communication resources to others with nonverbal autism, but she also plans to educate the public about the millions of people living with nonverbal autism all over the world.

"There are 31 million nonspeakers with autism in the world who are locked in a silent cage," Bonker told her fellow graduates on May 9. And, as she clearly demonstrates, their inability to verbalize their thoughts does not make them "different," "stupid," or "strange."

In the end, it merely presents an extra hurdle for them to overcome — which can only happen if they're given a helping hand.

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