“Too often, people with disabilities have no voice in this narrative…” An exclusive interview with Irene Sarpato

Tiziano Thomas Dossena - L'Idea Magazine

Pubblichiamo di seguito l’intervista realizzata da L’Idea Magazine, giornale on-line della comunità italo-americana, alla Dott.ssa Irene Sarpato su disabilità, salute mentale, neurodivergenza ed inclusione.

Irene Sarpato holds a Degree in Philosophy, specializing in morals, psychology, and human science. She is a Facilitator of the #IamRemarkable workshop, an initiative aimed at empowering women and people from underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements in the workplace and beyond. She is also the founder and chair of the global disability-based ERG at the company she worked at.
In January 2022, she joined the Global Board of Advisors of Billion Strong Foundation, based in Rockville (Virginia), an identity and empowerment organization designed to bring the billions of voices of persons with disabilities together.

L’Idea MagazineHello Irene. Because of your International ties, although you are Italian and live in Italy, I am going to interview you in English, if that’s all right with you… You hold a Degree in Philosophy, specializing in morals, psychology, and human science. What was your dissertation about? 
Irene Sarpato: Hello Tiziano, thanks for having me and giving me the opportunity to reach out to the Italian American community. Un caro saluto a tutti e tutte voi!
Yes, my dissertation was on prejudice, discrimination, and social stigma around mental conditions.
My research aimed to assess the effect that theoretical models of the psyche can have on the individual and collective behavior and judgment.
Considering a certain personality paradigm as “normal” and healthy often results in the unacceptability and marginalization of anything that deviates from it. Examples are people with mental conditions or children with school learning peculiarities who, until a few years ago, were kept separate, even physically, from “normals.”
Mental conditions have often been the subject of unjustified and mortifying fears and discrimination. Let us not forget, for example, the extermination program conducted by Hitler against the mentally ill or the harsh regime of segregation and violence that was perpetrated in asylums, of which we have important testimonies from patients such as our Italian poet Alda Merini. In common slang, terms such as “dissociated”, “psycho”, “OCD” are used in a pejorative sense and as an insult.
Thus, history teaches us that the illusion that there is only one reality, and that one reality is better than another, has led to the justification of genocide, segregation, social and racial discrimination, always based on the desire to suppress differences from an absolute paradigm of homogeneity, acquired and shared by a group.
Well, we can reconsider the implicit value judgment if we adopt a psychological model that recognizes the psyche as having a certain malleability, which is sustained by more recent clinical studies highlighting that benign dissociative episodes are, for example, observed even among the nonclinical population and are much more frequent than one might imagine, especially among young people and college students. These include experiences such as absorption (in reading or watching a movie), daydreaming, or having the ability to act in different contexts almost as if one had two different personalities.
Given the frequency of these phenomena, the continuum model is gradually being adopted: dissociation is no longer conceived as an all-or-nothing pattern but as a spectrum.
What is important, then, is to be available to understand the behavior of others and the discomfort it may signal, without any judgment. This disposure can enable us both to broaden our own experience and to be moral therapists for others, who care for their souls. This is also a safe environment to talk about how we feel, while stigma prevents people to seek help.

L’Idea Magazine: You’ve been volunteering in Mental Health Associations as a moral consultant since the age of 18. What prompted this decision of yours?
Irene Sarpato: Mental health is one of my earliest interests, actually. I felt strongly within me the need to support people who suffer from mental health conditions, sometimes abandoned by families, without friends, with great difficulties to lead everyday life, isolated and alone. I thought, “If I were to be in this situation, I would feel very sad and lonely. Let’s start taking care of others, and maybe, if one day I need help, someone will do the same for me.” I wanted to create a virtuous circle of non-specialist, non-therapeutic mutual help and support. I dreamed of a world in which human beings just help each other as one big family.

L’Idea MagazineSo, you were concerned about the way society approached disabilities at a young age. Recently you discovered that you were “Asperger’, considered a kind of neural disability. Is that right? Did this discovery amplify your interest in the world of disability?
Irene Sarpato: Precisely. The diagnosis was my aha moment of illumination! I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (which is in the Autism Spectrum Disorder and considered “high-functioning” autism) a year ago when I was 43 years old. It was not a surprise as much as it was the frame that allowed me to put the pieces of the puzzle in the right place and complete the image of myself, getting to finally know why certain things that for others are so easy and pleasant for me have always been difficult and tiring, and vice versa.
I like my new and complete image very much, which is why I say that I do not experience my condition of a neuroatypical woman like a dis-turb or as a dis-discomfort. I also gladly talk about it in public and in the work environment, share my lived experiences, my achievements, my difficulties, and how I overcame them, putting the coping strategies I built for myself at the disposal of other people. In fact, throughout my life, I have been adding new and useful tools to the toolbox that has supported me in my studies, work, and social interactions, and that has also enabled me to achieve personal and professional goals. Even if, from a medical perspective, I’m not disabled, I identify with this group and my new awareness definitely contributed to amplifying my interest in disabilities and special abilities and my willingness to do something for others.

L’Idea MagazineYou are a Facilitator of the #IamRemarkable workshop. What does that mean and entail?
Irene Sarpato: #IamRemarkable is a global initiative by Google, empowering women, and other underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements.
During the workshop, people develop the confidence to promote themselves in the workplace and personal life, thereby breaking modesty norms and glass ceilings.
During one of the #IamRemarkable workshops I facilitated, I decided to share the personal experience that brought me to #IaR and to let the Remarkable Ladies in the room really get what modesty norms are all about.
When I was a young professional, my manager invited me to a meeting with other managers, all men. I was the specialist and I had to answer questions and provide technical guidance for a project, and that’s what I did, answering all the questions they asked me of which, perhaps by chance, I was sure of the answers.
After the meeting, my manager came back to me and suggested me to “always avoid giving all the answers right away so as not to seem arrogant”. “Better rather pretend not to know or not to have understood the question” he said, and this was “for my own good” of course.
I didn’t get the point at that moment; I was just feeling upset. I was feeling that there was something wrong in those words: why should I pretend not to know if I was the expert invited just to give answers?
If I had attended a #IaR workshop at that time, I would have had the confidence and the right arguments to change that conversation and call out the microaggression. Now I have them, and I am happy to teach them to others who may need them. […]

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