Melissa 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.”
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:
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