Top of the Class

Elizabeth Bonker found her voice, and she wants to help others do the same.

Photo by Scott Cook, courtesy of Rollins College

When Elizabeth Bonker gave the commencement (graduation) speech to her classmates at Rollins College in May 2022, she didn’t say a word. But her message came through loud and clear: Use your voice to help others. 

Bonker, who is nonspeaking, delivered her speech using text-to-speech software. That is, she typed the words into a device and a computerized voice conveyed them into the microphone. Bonker used the technology in her college classes as well. She said it had opened a whole world to her.

“I am one of the lucky few nonspeaking autistics who have been taught to type,” she told her classmates. “That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and to be educated.”

Bonker is affected by autism, a term used to describe a range of conditions that can include repetitive behaviors, trouble reading social cues, and communication challenges. About 25 to 35 percent of people on what’s called the autism spectrum are nonspeaking, meaning they don’t speak or they use only a few words.

Two women sit at a table. One of the women holds a keyboard while the other types on it.
Photo by Scott Cook, courtesy of Rollins College

Elizabeth Bonker (right) uses text-to-speech technology to communicate.

Bonker is passionate about helping others who are affected by nonspeaking autism. While in college, she founded Communication 4 All, an organization that provides communication resources to schools and other facilities. She’ll continue with this type of work now that she has her college degree.

“I have a dream. Communication for all,” she said in her speech. “My life will be dedicated to relieving [nonspeaking people] from suffering in silence.”

Bonker told her classmates that she hoped they would be inspired by Fred Rogers, as she was. Rogers was known to millions of children as Mister Rogers through his TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He often talked about helping others. In fact, his show aimed to help kids be comfortable with who they are. 

“When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet,” Bonker said. “It said, ‘Life is for service.’”

Bonker intends to keep putting that lesson into action.

Did You Know?

GIF showing a speech bubble reading an article from a laptop screen with text appearing in the bubble word by word
© Africa Studio/stock.adobe.com; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Text to speech (TTS) is a form of technology that turns written text into audio form. TTS can be used by nonspeaking people, such as people who are affected by autism, to help them communicate. It can also be used as a read-aloud tool for people who have difficulty reading words. TTS has opened new doors for millions of people.

Justice for All

A woman stands at a podium and speaks before an audience.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images Entertainment
Haben Girma speaks at a diversity and inclusion summit in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2019.

When Haben Girma was in college, she had a problem with the dining hall. The problem wasn’t the food; it was the menu, which was printed and posted on the wall. When Girma, who is Deafblind (meaning she is both Deaf and blind), asked for a Braille menu, she was told one wasn’t available. So Girma did some research and found out that denying people with disabilities access to the same resources as everyone else is against the law. She spoke out, and the menus were changed.

It was the beginning of a larger fight. In 2013, Girma became the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. Today, she is a disability rights lawyer, dedicated to expanding rights and opportunities for people with disabilities.

Girma travels around the world, talking to people who have powerful jobs about the importance of inclusion. She reminds them that inclusion means giving people with disabilities access—to jobs, the Internet, and other things that many people take for granted. 

“It’s people and communities that create freedom,” Girma told MSNBC. “All of us face a choice to accept unfairness or advocate for justice.”

Temple Grandin

Scientist Temple Grandin’s work is inspired by her experience with autism. Find out how.

© Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com

WORD OF THE DAY

neurodiversity

PART OF SPEECH:

noun

Definition:

: the inclusion in a group, organization, etc. of people with different types of brain functioning

Definitions provided by
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