Sitting at the dining table of his Minneapolis home one recent afternoon, Ahmed Ali recalled the moment his words finally made sense.
Ali, who has cerebral palsy, normally struggles to form understandable words. But using a speech synthesizer that he types his words into, he delivered his high school commencement address this summer.
He not only stunned the crowd at the Minneapolis Convention Center, he also made history. The event marked the first time such a communication device had ever been used for a graduation speech in the Minneapolis School District.
“It’s a blessing,” Ali said of his accomplishment. “That was one of my happiest days.”
The 21-year-old Somali American long had a yearning to speak in front of a crowd. But his voice never let him. That is, until he discovered the speech synthesizer.
Standing behind the lectern, wearing a crisp blue graduation cap and gown, and a big indelible smile, he thanked the people in the auditorium who changed his life and praised his classmates for all they had achieved despite their daily struggles.
“Your life is a relay race,” Ali reminded his fellow Transition Plus graduates. “Every time you achieve something, you pass the baton to the next person. Guess who you’re passing the baton to? It’s you.”
Ali, who’s known to friends and family as “Baby Obama,” “Smiles” and “Hollywood,” closed his remarks with greetings in different languages and then dropped an inflatable microphone, mimicking his biggest role model, former President Barack Obama, who famously did a mic drop at the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The crowd rose from their seats, drowning Ali with an uproar of cheers and applause, a response that reinforced his hunch that he was born to be a public speaker.
Since the ceremony, video of Ali’s inspirational speech has been widely shared on social media. Ali has given interviews to media outlets across the world and has spoken at several Minneapolis Public Schools back-to-school kickoff events, where he urged teachers and other school leaders to listen to and learn from their students, particularly those with disabilities.
Transition Plus principal Jason Backes, said Ali’s speech is already breaking barriers globally for disabled people and is changing school leaders’ views on special-education programs.
Over the years, Backes said, Ali persistently demonstrated leadership strengths and supported his classmates and staff — attributes that won him the honor of giving the graduation speech.
“Ahmed is a very mature young man who just has an old soul,” said Backes. “Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that people should think of them as not having abilities.”
Ali was born in Somalia and came to the United States in 2006 from Egypt not knowing a single word of English. A basketball fan who roots for the Los Angeles Lakers, he is the second-oldest of six children.
His love for public speaking was piqued at a young age. But his dream was almost shattered when an elementary school teacher told him he would “never be able to speak to a crowd while using assistive technology.”
Ali came to Transition Plus, a school that prepares special-education students, ages 18 to 21, for postsecondary education, work and independent living, after he completed four years at Minneapolis’ South High School with less resolve about his future.
But with support from his family and his teachers at Transition Plus, Ali picked up more English words and improved his reading and writing skills. He will attend Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where he plans to study information technology. His goal is to build voice software systems that register various languages — including Somali — for youths with speech defects.
Ali said he drew his inspiration to speak out from his former teacher at Transition Plus, Jewell Reichenberger. Reichenberger, he said, revived his dream and helped him become comfortable with his disability.
“She saw my full potential, and she helped me see that I matter as a black Muslim who’s living in America,” Ali said. “She gave me a purpose to live.”
Reichenberger, who worked one-on-one with Ali for the past three years, said all she did was listen and make him aware of the special gift he carried. She said she plans to invite her “little Baby Obama” to visit her class after he adjusts to college life.
“He’s just super smart, and he’s got a lot to say,” she said. “Some people might have not ever given him the chance, to actually get to know how intelligent this kid is.”
Preparing for his big speech included two weeks of writing, editing and practicing. His younger siblings Abdullahi Egal and Raqiya Egal would listen keenly for mistakes in Ali’s writing and watched him perform in the living room.
In September, Ali will get a new communication device with improved functions, which he said will make it easier and faster for him to communicate with people.
Hamdi Labale said her son, who uses a wheelchair to go around, has had a lot of breakthroughs in life. There were times when Ali couldn’t walk, sit up or talk. Now, he is doing all of that with a smile on his face, she said.
“Ahmed is a hard worker,” Labale said. “He tries his best at everything he does because he is driven to succeed.”