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Melissa Riggio dies at 20; Inspired changes in bookselling, publishing

April 8th, 2008

disability news and commentary, Melissa RiggioMelissa Riggio, whose life helped prompt the publishing industry to pay more attention to the expanding market of people with disabilities and their families, died Monday of leukemia, her family announced today. The daughter of Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio, she was 20.

Ms. Riggio, who had Down syndrome, was the inspiration for Barnes & Noble’s creation of a special section of books about children with special needs. In an interview with the New York Times in 1991, Mr. Riggio said he realized after his daughter’s birth that books about children with disabilities were scarce and often difficult to locate.

That year, when Ms. Riggio was three, the company celebrated the nationwide debut of its “Children with Special Needs Collection.” It contained about four dozen titles about disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy, dyslexia and speech and hearing impairments, most of which were not widely circulated.

Mr. Riggio said at the time that he hoped the company’s efforts would lead to the publication of more books about childhood disabilities. “We want to encourage publishers,” he told the Times. “We want to get out the word that our company is behind these books. If publishers know there is a home for them in our stores, that they won’t be relegated to a few shelves in libraries, they are more likely to publish them.”

disability news and commentary, Melissa and Steve RiggioToday, a search of the company’s website reveals almost 3,400 items in the company’s “Children with Special Needs” collection.

Ms. Riggio (at left, with her father) lived in Bernardsville, New Jersey, with her family and was a 2007 graduate of Bernards High School, where she was crowned prom queen at her senior prom. She shared her feelings about her life in an essay in National Geographic Kids magazine in January of 2007. The essay, titled “I Have Down Syndrome — Know Me Before You Judge Me” conveyed a powerful message of self-advocacy, acceptance, inclusion and optimism.

“Even though I have Down syndrome, my life is a lot like yours,” Ms. Riggio was quoted in the article “as told to” Rachel Buchholz. “It’s true that I don’t learn some things as fast as other people. But that won’t stop me from trying. I just know that if I work really hard and be myself, I can do almost anything …

“I can’t change that I have Down syndrome, but one thing I would change is how people think of me. I’d tell them: Judge me as a whole person, not just the person you see. Treat me with respect, and accept me for who I am.”

An avid poet and aspiring songwriter, Ms. Riggio collaborated on several songs with British singer-songwriter Rachel Fuller and Peter Townshend, a family friend and lead guitarist of the Who. A haunting recording of her lyric in “The Ring” can be heard on the website of the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), where her father serves as vice chair of the board of directors. Ms. Riggio’s essay and music were also featured by Barnes & Noble in Down syndrome awareness events held last year in approximately 500 stores across the country. The songs are available for download at www.riggio.net.

In May 2003, Ms. Riggio received the Self-Advocate Award from the NDSS; Senator Hillary Clinton was honored at the same event.

Ms. Riggio was employed as an office worker at the Somerset Hills YMCA in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and had plans to enter a post-secondary educational program. She is survived by her parents, Steve and Laura Riggio, sisters Laura and Christina, her grandmother, Lena Riggio, and a large extended family.

The obituary notice provided by her family can be viewed here.

Following are some of Ms. Riggio’s lyrics:

The Ring
Words by Melissa Riggio
Music by Rachel Fuller


I’m in the Ring outside
I’m following my belief
I’m looking at the sky
I saw God following my heart
I’m an ordinary woman


The Ring is falling down my way
The wind is blowing me away
The Ring is falling down, down my way
The wind is blowing me away


And so I came back to
The center of the Ring
Am I just a broken angel?
God has sent me here to heal
To be an ordinary woman

Late update: Ms. Riggio’s death notice is carried in Wednesday’s New York Times, accompanied by a guestbook where visitors may share memories or express condolences.

See related post here: Remembering Melissa Riggio 

14 Responses to “Melissa Riggio dies at 20; Inspired changes in bookselling, publishing”

  1. Riggio-Bleatman Says:

    I just wanted to say I am so sorry for your loss. Even though I have never known you I have read your daughter’s website. I was googling my maiden name and I had found her name. Once I started reading it I noticed we had something in common. I have a son who will be 8yrs old soon with Down Syndrome. Just reading her song and such has given me great hope that my son will one day achieve his dreams and goals. Til then we will deal with his frustrations because he doesn’t verbalize quite well. I will always keep your family in my heart and prayers because there is never enough.
    May God Bless your family.

  2. Phoenix Fox Family Says:

    The Ring, incredible song, please let me buy it through the NDSS to help raise money for such an important foundation. The Person, Melissa, what a courageous and brave young woman you have been. You have graced this planet with your existence and you have left it better than the way you found it.

    It is the special, dare I say different, children who are the ones who end up changing the world. Everyone else seems to just talk about it. You can be alive for a hundred years and never do anything or you can be alive for twenty and etch your name permanently into society. I choose the latter.

    Thank you, Riggio family, for everything you have brought us. You are truly blessed.

  3. Jackie Lewis Says:

    I have worked with many Down syndrome individuals, many like Melissa. I know there are so many of them who wish they could share their thoughts just like she has done through words and song. I know she will truly be missed. God’s speed to her and her family.

  4. Lynn Schmidt Says:

    My deepest sympathies to Melissa’s family. They will be in my thoughts and prayers.

  5. velvet tauras Says:

    Dear Riggio family,

    I am forever touched by your incredible daughter, Melissa. I’m grateful and thankful she had such a beautiful understanding of how great pure love is. Your beautiful Melissa shares my birthday, March 25th … and she shares a piece of my heart because I’m the mother of two sets of twins with a child with Down syndrome in each set.

    I love your daughter’s courageous spirit. She truly is the greatest, most powerful gift God has given to your family and ours. I pray for comfort, for much love & peace. Thank you for sharing her with us.

  6. Robbin Lyons Says:

    I work every day to help families of individuals with Down syndrome, who find themselves battling this terrible dual diagnoses of cancer. Most cases have happier outcomes, but Melissa’s death reminds us of the real danger that this disease presents and the need for our community to support families dealing with this challenge. My prayers go out to Melissa’s family. She was an inspiring gifted individual and our world was a better place with her in it.

  7. The Andy Anderson family Says:

    To the Riggios: I just learned of the loss of your beautiful daughter, Melissa. As I read her story and her lovely poem, life and many talents, I was inspired by what a talented person your daughter was.

    We too have a son with Down syndrome, and we are blessed to still have him at age 36. Your daughter, like our son, is leaving an awesome testimony of the beautiful people God has sent to bless our lives.

    I am so happy to learn through reading about your daughter about a section in Barnes and Noble about our precious “special needs” loved ones.

    Thank you for sharing your daughter’s wonderful story. Her story will go out to others I know to be a blessing to them as well.

    Our hearts truly go out to you for we know your loss is great. May the Lord bless and comfort your hearts as only He can do.

    I too look forward to meeting your Melissa in Glory! Love in Jesus, Andy, Trish & Andy II in IN

  8. Sherry Says:

    Melissa’s life touched so many. I remember looking at her picture and listening to her song when my little girl, Sandia, was about one. Sandia also has Down syndrome. Melissa gave me hope. She made me smile. Her song made me smile and cry. It is tragic to lose such a brilliant soul. Her influence will remain. I hope Sandia will listen to her songs and be inspired one day. Thank you, thank you, thank you. She lives on.

  9. chris and brenda Says:

    My wife and I have a grandson named Alex who has Down syndrome. He is God’s gift to our whole family. With that said, God sent Melissa to help you out but needed her back with him because as you know she was a true angel. We are sorry for your loss and the world will miss Melissa. Hold on for you will see her again, with her big smile.

  10. Jennifer Gleabes Says:

    To the Riggio family: I am so sorry for your loss. Actually it is all of our loss as well. Melissa was an inspiring young lady. God needed his angel to come home and help him in Heaven. She left her mark. God Bless.

  11. Julie Borkowski Says:

    I plan to leave flowers at our Barnes and Noble in town. I think it would be a lovely tribute. Here is my message to Melissa:

    Melissa, you are a wonderful inspiration to us all, Down syndrome or no Down sydrome. You spoke in your song “The Ring” about being a broken angel, but truthfully we are the ones who are broken. You were sent to teach us how to be whole. You have touched many lives and Heaven decided they needed you back. You will be missed, but I cannot wait to meet you in Heaven one day.

  12. Pamela Wilson Says:

    I was sad to read today of the passing of a wonderful young woman, Melissa Riggio, whose battle with leukemia took her away from us much too soon. I thought about her every time I walked into a Barnes and Noble store, and I always will. My son was four when she was born, and I remember what it meant to me as a mother to find the first collection of books in the new special needs section of our local B & N store. My heart goes out to her family in their grief. We will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

  13. Jan Huffman Says:

    Our deepest sympathies for the Riggio family. The special needs section at B & N helped promote the Gifts book to assist new families with children with Down syndrome. The Riggio family and Melissa contribute much to Down syndrome awareness, and she will be greatly missed.

  14. Nancy Iannone Says:

    Thank you for sharing information about the life of this wonderful woman. My deepest sympathies to the Riggio family. I know their loss is painful, and I hope their good memories will sustain them. We in the Down syndrome community also feel her loss. She accomplished so much in her life, even at such a young age, and had such a promising future. She inspired advocacy from which we parents have benefited. My thoughts are with the Riggio family.

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More than 50 million people in the United States have disabilities, a number that is growing rapidly as the population ages. Experts say disability will soon affect the lives of most Americans. This website attempts to aggregate news and commentary about disability, and to document the efforts of people who are seeking new ways to address familiar challenges.

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