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Students/Faculty News Stephen Lanzi June 09, 2022

Director's Notes

Rimmer has short reddish-brown hair and wears glasses, a light blue shirt with thin stripes, and a navy blazer.

James Rimmer, CEDHARS Director

In a previous editorial I commented on Lindsay Bowe’s powerful expression in the UAB Graduate School “Say It In 6” competition with her insightful words: "Disabled and equally capable as before."

Once again, it’s a student with a disability that has my over 40-year career in disability studies and I taken aback by a few short words. Elizabeth Bonker was not only the valedictorian of her graduating class at Rollins College, but she was also invited to give the commencement speech. And thus, a young woman, wise beyond her years, taught the world what it means to have autism and be nonverbal.

Bonker was born with autism and hasn’t spoken since she was 15 months old, which is the case for 31 million people around the world with non-verbal autism. But thanks to technology, she was able to prepare her beautiful six-minute speech using text-to-speech software that translated her thoughts into words. She mentioned typing her commencement speech with one finger using a communication partner who held the keyboard while she meticulously typed out each letter and word.

She, like Bowe, found a powerful expression in just a few words. During her speech she cited four words from the most famous Rollins alum, Fred Rogers – better known as Mister Rogers – who, upon his death was found with a piece of paper in his wallet with the words: “life is for service.”

Bonker used these four words to frame the underlying message of her speech. She challenged the graduating class to tear off a piece of their commencement program and write those four words down and keep them somewhere where they can always be reminded of the true nature of our existence – helping others. Some intuitive administrator at Rollins thankfully recognized the importance of diversity and inclusion from the perspective of giving this young person a platform for educating her classmates – and the world – how interesting the diversity spectrum is when you go beyond one standard deviation from the mean. The more representative, the more inclusive.

We are crossing the threshold of a new era of disability gain. Academic institutions are starting to recognize the value in seeking out students with disabilities who have much to offer the academy. What has now become a defining moment is giving students a voice where there may be perceived to be none. Hats off to Rollins College. Ms. Bonker’s voice was always there; someone just needed to find it.

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