Volume 16 Number 5
Defeating Silence
01 October 2003

Nineteen-year-old Virgilio Tognato from Thiene in northern Italy has just published his first book: no mean achievement for someone who at the age of nine was thought to have an IQ of nil.

Nineteen-year-old Virgilio Tognato from Thiene in northern Italy has just published his first book: no mean achievement for someone who at the age of nine was thought to have an IQ of nil.

Virgilio was born with a nasty malformation of his feet, but his mother, Graziella, was a nurse and was sure it could be remedied. She and her husband, Imperio, the registrar of a school, already had two healthy boys, Francesco and Abramo.

The trouble turned out to be more serious than expected. Virgilio went through an endless ordeal of operations, gymnastics and plaster casts. Then, when he was two, he was diagnosed as being affected by hemiplegia, a paralysis of one half of the body.

At playschool he was open and friendly, but unable to speak or draw. At five he began to walk; later he was able to ride a bicycle. But he still could not speak and even now his spoken vocabulary is limited.

When Virgilio was six his teacher told Graziella that he was ‘extremely intelligent’ because he was ‘crafty’. But in spite of this glimmer of hope, an IQ test at the age of nine rated his intelligence at ‘nil’.

At school–where he had his own support teacher–or in public he was sociable, but at home he became more and more difficult. It was obvious that his inability to communi-cate caused him great anguish.

The turning point came in 2001 when he was 17. A family friend, who worked with handicapped people, came across the Facilitated Communication (FC) technique, whereby a person who cannot speak can communicate by typing with the help of somebody who supports his or her arm.

It turned out that a specialist with 10 years’ experience of FC, Cecilia Zannoni, lived just a block away from Virgilio’s home. Virgilio writes: ‘The sun exploded and I began to live. With her I have joked, laughed, suffered and fought: the affection that binds us is like a golden thread which gives me the strength to keep on!’

Virgilio immediately registered for the final middle school exam–and passed it. Virgilio’s reply to his headmaster’s letter of congratulation gives an inkling of the ignorance and disbelief his family had to battle with: ‘I thank you for having made this wild dream possible, and I shall always remember you as a good dad... What struck me most was the fear on the part of the support teachers that they could lose relevance. One always has something to learn in life and being too sure of oneself is a symptom of ignorance. I wonder why it is so difficult to judge a man beyond his appearance.’

The Tognatos have now taken on a new mission: to inform the school system and families about the longing for normality of many differently able young people and about the prospects offered to them by FC. The couple are among the prime movers of the association Together to Communicate.

With the help of Cecilia Zannoni and others, Virgilio and Graziella have jointly produced a book with the title, chosen by Virgilio, of Contro il silenzio la parola canta (the word sings, defeating silence). Graziella has selected the most poignant entries from her diary and Virgilio the texts of some of his computer-aided conversations, which give a lively picture of his progress. It also includes some of his poems.

People like Virgilio possess immense potential, which our societies often miss through ignorance and disbelief. The essential point–as Virgilio’s family and friends have shown–is to believe in them, and give them appreciation and love.
Adriano Costa

Virgilio’s book (in Italian) from

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