"God gave you a voice. Use it," Elizabeth Bonker told the graduating class of Rollins College in her May 8 commencement speech. "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 was unanimously chosen by her four fellow valedictorians to deliver the speech to the college's 529 graduating students. She used a text-to-speech computer program to deliver her speech, according to Rollins College, a private college in Winter Park, Florida.
Bonker has used typing to communicate since losing her ability to speak at 15 months old due to autism, a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted," Bonker said in her speech. "A story on the front page of our local newspaper reported how the principal at my high school told a staff member, 'The retard can't be valedictorian.'"
She continued, "Yet today, here I stand. Each day, I choose to celebrate small victories, and today, I am celebrating a big victory with all of you."
Bonker, who graduated with a degree in social innovation, created her own nonprofit organization, called Communication 4 ALL, that works to "ensure that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education essential to living meaningful lives," according to its website.
She is also a poet and author who wrote a book, "I Am In Here," about her journey as a child with autism.
Around one in 44 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which describes the range of different ways autism may affect a person's ability to communicate, learn and interact with others according to the CDC.
According to Bonker's Communication 4 ALL organization, as many as 31 million people around the world have nonverbal autism, which means autism has impacted their ability to communicate or speak.
In her commencement address, Bonker called on her fellow graduates to not only use their voices but also to be of service, drawing on the inspiration of Fred Rogers, who graduated from Rollins College in 1951.
"During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mr. Rogers," said Bonker. "When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, 'Life is for service.' You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound."
She continued later in her speech, "Whatever our life choices, each and every one of us can live a life of service — to our families, to our communities and to the world. And the world can't wait to see our light shine."