Marianne Riggio worked at Perkins School for the Blind from April 1981 until her retirement 41 years later in 2022. Before coming to Perkins, Riggio worked as a teacher in a small program for deafblind children and as a consultant and direct service provider for the New England Regional Center for Services to Deafblind Children and Youth. While at Perkins, she worked as a coordinator, program manager, and director. She has worked with the the Deafblind Program as well as Perkins International, most recently as the Director of the Educational Leadership Program. She photographed above with Dave Power and Michael Delaney when she received the Anne Sullivan Macy Medal in 2016.
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This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on May 25, 2022, by Susanna Coit. The audio and transcript are provided unedited.
This oral history transcript may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind. For permission please contact [email protected].
Riggio, Marianne. “Marianne Riggio oral history interview conducted by Susanna Coit,” 2022-05-25, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG176-2022-05, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Susanna Coit: Today is May 25, 2022. This is Susanna Coit. I’m here with Marianne Riggio. We’re Conducting this interview virtually on Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions. Marianne, are you OK with me recording this conversation?
Marianne Riggio: Yes, that’s fine.
Coit: Great. So to get started, how long have you been at Perkins?
Riggio: I’ve been here 41 years. I started in April of 1981.
Coit: And how did you come to Perkins?
Riggio: I came, actually, via New Hampshire where I was the head teacher in a small deafblind program or deafblind and multiple disabilities program. And then I began working statewide providing consultation and direct service to kids who were deafblind. And so I was always calling– at that time, it was the New England Regional Center for Services to Deafblind Children and Youth. That was the old name.
I would take advantage of every service they had to offer. I always laugh because I said they decided to hire me because they were so tired of me calling them all the time. [LAUGHS] So that that’s how I came to Perkins – is through the New England Center.
Coit: So what positions have you held at Perkins?
Riggio: Oh, I had a lot of positions. So I started as the educational consultant for the New England Regional Center. And then I became the coordinator and the project director for New England Center. And then in 1989– well, actually, I had to move over until 1990. It was early 1990 when we got the Hilton grant.
I moved over to the Hilton, what was then the Hilton-Perkins Program and I was the National Education Consultant for preschool and deafblindness for them. And I did that for about five years. And then I became the coordinator for them in 1995.
Up until 1995, Hilton-Perkins had an international program and a national program. And in 1995, they were both merged. I kept my role in the United States, but I also became the coordinator for our work in Asia, which I did until 2005. The change came because I adopted my son in 2003 and I didn’t want to travel as much.
So after that, I really became more involved in working on publications and starting to do webcasts on our website. And then I worked peripherally with the Educational Leadership Program. I worked part time informally with them.
And during that time, I think around 2010, I also began coordinating our work in Africa until we hired someone. And I became that support to Africa as well because I had done a lot of projects in Africa before that. It’s kind of a fuzzy period, but I had my fingers in a lot of different things during that time.
And then in 2012, when Jeff [Verbarcoush?] retired as director of the– I guess, coordinator I guess it was called then– as Coordinator of the Educational Leadership Program. I took that position, which is where I’ve been ever since.
Coit: That’s quite a list.
Riggio: I would say it wasn’t boring. I’ve never been bored.
Coit: I’m sure. What were some of the most memorable experiences from– I’m not sure it would be fair to ask you to cover those whole years, but what are some of the most memorable events or experiences along the way that stick out?
Riggio: I think branching out from our little New England region and really jumping into other unique cultures and populations was really what stands out. During the early years of Hilton-Perkins, I oversaw a project on the Navajo reservation. And we really worked with an anthropologist and the service provider to think about, how do you provide home intervention in the Navajo Nation, in the Navajo culture? How do you provide culturally appropriate services? So I think that was big.
There’s been really so many– just my first assignment when I was assigned to be coordinator of Asia was to go to India and present at a big [ICVI] conference. So that stood out. So there’s just – there’s so many standout experiences that have happened along the way, working in classrooms in places where there’s really no resources at all. We’re fortunate if there’s enough food to feed kids. I think those are just standouts to me because you realized the passion of people to provide for kids no matter what. I think that that’s big.
Coit: Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Navajo reservation work?
Riggio: We worked with an anthropologist and an educator. And the anthropologist happened to be a special educator as well. I was kind of overseeing it. I went to the Navajo reservation and went on home visits. But it was really the anthropologist who really looked at what were the cultural issues that we need to think about before we go into a home.
And I think the reason it was such a standout for me is because it really applies to any culture that we work in. We should be looking at these same kind of indicators of what is the dynamic of the family. Is it a matriarchal culture? Or what do we know about the religious beliefs as it pertains to raising your children?
There’s a whole list. And I – it was a long time ago — I’d have to come up with the whole list again in my head. But we came up with a publication from that on learning the way. It’s an old publication.
But actually, I was just talking about it yesterday as something that we should be looking at as we’re thinking internationally, early intervention is really just coming to the forefront. And I think it’s a publication that we should be looking at again just for that framework that it provides us to look at any culture.
Coit: Yeah. When you were saying that, it made me think of some of the things that I’ve heard about International doing as they start new programs. So it’s very interesting to hear that that’s where it started. So related to that, how do you think the– or how has the field changed?
Riggio: Well, I think the core of how we teach children and what we believe about teaching children has not changed dramatically. We have certainly the luxury of technology in our favor. So we’ve learned a lot more about augmentative and alternative communication. And we’ve learned more about the science of the brain and things like CVI that are really important.
But I think about when we began internationally, there was really only a handful of kids with multiple disabilities and deafblindness who were in school around the world. In the United States, certainly, we’ve had that law – we’ve had a mandate since the middle ’70s that all children should receive a free, appropriate public education. But that’s not the case around the world. There was a lot of countries that had really no legislation when we began that mandated children go to school and now there’s countries that have what we call “permissive regulations” where it’s on the books that we should be providing this but they’re not necessarily funding to support it. I don’t know where they got the estimate when we started. But they were saying there was 250 kids worldwide who are deafblind and had multiple disabilities who are in school. And now there’s hundreds of thousands of kids in school.
And so I just think that’s a huge leap because getting kids to school is the first obstacle. And then we bolster programs to really make sure we’re providing best practices, the best possible services to kids. And it’s been really nice to see not just during my year – my years, but all along, the impact that ELPs who go back to their home countries have had on their whole systems of education. I think that’s really impressive to see what they’ve gone back to do.
We just recently — an ELP from 2008 in Chile really persevered and got deafblindness mentioned in public policy as a specialized group requiring services. And that’s really big. And it’s because of what she learned when she was in the States about collaboration, how important it is to collaborate to get policies changed and just keep talking to people until people understand. And she just persevered all those years. And 12 or 13 years later, she got the policies changed.
So there’s really been so many stories of people who have gone back to do more teacher training who have started model programs. It’s really impressive. Again, it’s mostly having to do with their passion to work in this field. It’s not a field I think people enter casually.
Coit: Yeah. So what have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Riggio: I think when you see kids. I remember being in Africa and they brought a baby in for evaluation who, really, was — I wouldn’t have thought would have survived, but because there became a program there that could serve him and nurture him – he thrived. And I think that’s heartwarming to see those kind of changes. You have those moments when you think, wow, that child probably would not have survived. You know, and kids with multiple disabilities are neglected and are at high risk for neglect and abuse. And so when you see these programs that give kids an opportunity to really thrive, I think it’s just a really important thing.
Coit: And then I guess the flip side of that is what have been difficulties or challenging aspects of your work?
Riggio: I think sometimes there’s sometimes a chicken and egg issue in countries where they don’t have programs, so they don’t train teachers because they don’t have programs. And they, you know, and then they, if they have programs – I don’t know. They don’t have programs, so they don’t train teachers. And so it just becomes a “where do you begin” kind of thing that sometimes is frustrating.
And I think some of the frustration is from – there isn’t the knowledge and skill in deafblind education at higher levels to make that happen. So you have a system where there’s people trained in universities and teacher training colleges who can be – the graduates can be the ones that start the programs. And then there’s also — there’s all kinds of politics everywhere.
Coit: Of course. And do you have any particularly memorable colleagues or people that you’ve worked with?
Riggio: I think Barbara McLetchie is probably my most memorable colleague. She really taught us all a lot. You know, beyond – I learned things in college, but she and I began collaborating on summer institutes when I was at New England Center and I just realized the depth that this woman had that I had never seen before in terms of her knowledge of kids with deafblindness and multiple disabilities. And so she really became a partner in many projects that I did. You’ll see many of the publications that I’ve written, I wrote with her. And it was just a really dynamic relationship, I think, where we could talk and argue and you know [LAUGHTER]. And I just learned so much from her in the process.
I think certainly, Jan van Dijk is somebody who, in terms of content also, he was just magic with children. He’s an alumni of Perkins Teacher Training. He was magic.
But I think in terms of my own career, I think Mike Collins is a person that stands out as my mentor through many years. He was my supervisor when I was at – the coordinator of the New England Center and then he became my supervisor at Hilton-Perkins. And he really led with his heart and taught us to really lead with our hearts because when we started Hilton-Perkins, it was really starting from nothing and he always encouraged us that if what we are doing feels right for kids, then it’s probably right. And I think that was just the best guidance.
Coit: Yeah. Can you actually tell me some more about the Hilton-Perkins — how your experience with its development — and you talked about the merging of the national and international programs. Can you just talk a little bit more about that?
Riggio: Yeah. I think we have to credit Kevin Lessard also with really crafting the design for the Hilton-Perkins Program. It wasn’t that we wrote a grant to Hilton. It was really a project that was funded largely based on Kevin’s personal relationship that formed with the chairman of the board of the Hilton Foundation, Don Hubbs. So it was really the two of them that worked together to really talk through what would be the best model.
The Hilton Foundation is an interesting foundation. They do not put out an RFP. They’re requesting people to apply for their funds. They do their research, and then they kind of put feelers out with different organizations. And then from that, they select who they’re going to support.
And I think originally, the Hilton Foundation was thinking that maybe we should build copies of Perkins around the world and Kevin, in his wisdom, said, well, maybe that may not be the best way to work, that we should really be supporting the efforts on the ground and helping people grow their own services rather than trying to franchise our services. And I think that was very wise and so during the early years, our mission was– teacher training was a big item that we were concerned about around the world and in the United States. So we provided, with Hilton, we provided money. We provided support to some teacher training programs in deafblindness because there wasn’t enough federal support. And generally, those programs are small, and so they don’t get a lot of federal funding.
And so we supported those programs. And we supported – I’m trying to remember all the programs in the United States. It was San Diego State University, Michigan State University, and I think some program in Alabama. But anyway, we provided support to those programs.
And then working with family organizations was another big priority. Kevin recognized the importance of families. And Steve Perreault was the National Family consultant for the United States when we began and so he really helped build up NAPVI, National Association of Parents of Visually Impaired, and NFADB, the National Family Association Deaf-Blindness. So he was instrumental in working with those organizations, but then – and then when we started, we also prioritized preschool, getting services to schools and preschools, improving the quality. And so in the United States, again, we worked at programs that serves unique populations. So like I said before, we had the Navajo Project. We also had multicultural projects in California and New Jersey. So it was trying to fill a void where there was some knowledge gap or a service gap.
Riggio: And we did that around the world. And around the world, when we began Hilton-Perkins, like I said, there was very few programs. And we knew some of the partner agencies, like Helen Keller International and CBM who worked around the world with populations of people who are blind and visually impaired. So we kind of learned from them. We got a little bit of the lay of the land from them. But I think we really started out just trying to build awareness about multiple disabilities, and visual impairment, and deaf blindness. And so we would do – I think initially, Alana Zambone, she was the coordinator for Latin America and Asia, which is where we began the international work and I know she did a lot of awareness training.
We looked at who kind of bit when you do the awareness training and then you find the people who it resonates with, and they want more and so that’s how we developed our partnerships, with programs that we wanted to support to become model programs for kids with multiple disabilities.
And so you know, a lot of our work – when I started in Asia, a lot of the work was really just working with programs. And the same thing in Africa was working right in the schools helping model best practice and building teams of administrators, parents, and teachers to take up the real passion or to take up the mission of sustaining, or developing sustainable services.
Coit: Yeah. So in 1995, you said you were the coordinator. What did that role involve?
Riggio: Yeah, I became the coordinator for Asia then. And that was just Asia– [LAUGHS] just Asia. So it was on top of the US job, so we kind of laughed about that. Because of the people have resigned and left for other reasons. And it was kind of, well, do you mind just taking Asia?
So I was very fortunate to work with Kirk Horton, who was our regional representative on the ground. He was based in Thailand. He was an American based in Thailand. But he had experience working for Helen Keller International. So he was really helpful to me.
And again, I think one of the — I feel like personally, one of the best things that we did was in India it took me a while to figure out, again, the dynamics of the country, and listening to people, and what they’re saying, and digesting it all in terms of how people work and a place like India is a very competitive country because of the huge population. And we found we were working in pockets. We had a little program here and a little program there that we were supporting. But I kept thinking, well, how do we connect this all into a field? We needed to promote the development of a field of professionals.
And so I think the wonderful thing we do is we’re conveners. We can bring people together. We were able to bring people from all those programs into a room together and then we went through a process of what is it that India has that’s really good? What are the gaps? And then how do we, as a community, fill those gaps? And so that really began the whole birth of a voice and vision where people who worked in all those programs — at the beginning, it was all voluntary. They came together, and they developed training courses. And they worked together to train people in programs that didn’t have a lot of resources and they followed up with those people and so I think that was probably a really exemplary kind of model that still exists in different forms as an entity unto itself, which is what you hope. You know, I always say that our goal is always to put ourselves out of business.
Coit: Exactly. So I know you work a lot with ELPs. How has that program and how have the participants evolved in your time working with them?
Riggio: It was funny, I was just saying that after graduation this year, that I feel like every year, the caliber of ELP gets higher because the services are evolving. I always think it’s a test of where we’re at in the world as far as services for children with multiple disabilities. We’re not getting teachers who are just coming in new. It truly has become a leadership program where people who come to us skilled and just raise their skills– and I always say we want to improve people’s competence when they’re here, but also their confidence. And I think being immersed in the Perkins environment, in our classrooms, then the cottages, really ingrains everything in the ELP participants. And it really gives them, like I said, tremendous confidence when they go home that they know what they’re talking about and they can make change.
And I think that the Shark Tank projects have had a big influence on the work that people do when they go back, and again, on their professional growth to have to write — up until, I don’t know, maybe 2013, people used to just write a project. We used to have them, as their final thing to do, was write a project for their country and I always was bothered by that a little bit because some of them just came out as term papers. And so we shifted. And we started saying, OK, we’re going to talk about writing proposals about fundraising, which is all part of leadership. And so I guess my mantra has always been with the ELPs is to dream big. I don’t want people to come to Perkins and say, well, you have so much and we just can’t do that because I don’t have any money.
And so I always do a lot of person-centered planning for children, but also for your country. And we want you to think about a vision of what you would like your country to be like. And then the Shark Tank projects is a proposal. They come out of a proposal that they write to take that first step toward the bigger change that they want in their countries.
And I think the process of preparing their presentation for the Shark Tank event is huge in terms of building their confidence to talk to other people. And Dave Power and Helene Power have helped us a lot in terms of training people on how to present their challenge, you know, talking about who you are, how you got here, what is the problem that you’re trying to solve, and what is your steps that you’re going to take to solve it.
And so I just think that whole process, it’s certainly influenced ELPs in terms of their personal feelings of professionalism. But it’s also elevated their stature when they go home because they go home with a little bit of money to do a project. And so we’ve seen that these projects have become like a stepping stone to promotions to people really taking more notice of multiple disabilities because you’re coming back to do something that’s going to enhance the services. So I think that that’s been a wonderful evolution that I’ve seen in terms of the program.
Coit: Great. Can you tell me about your work with publications and your experience doing that? I know you are one of the editors of Remarkable Conversations. Can you talk about that process and how that book came to be?
Riggio: Yeah. The whole thing with publications started accidently — I don’t know – serendipitously, I guess I’ll say. It actually started with the Perkins Activity and Resource Guide when I was in transition from– I was still working at New England Center, and I was going to move over to Hilton-Perkins once we filled the position at New England Center.
That was the time when people in Lower School were starting to put together that publication but it did kind of– I don’t know– –didn’t have a direction. And so Mike asked me if I would intervene. And so I joined that group of people that were writing the Activity and Resource Guide. And I tapped into a friend of mine’s brother who worked for a publishing house. It was kind of of learning as we go on publications.
And so he’s directed me, I guess, into a consultant service to help us with the editing and the design. Just as a group, we had a nice relationship, so we could really talk about what the book was about.
And it wasn’t really going to be a curriculum because the curriculum process is different, you know, developing a curriculum is different. And they kept saying, we want a resource for a teacher in Kansas, and so, you know, who doesn’t know anything about kids with multiple disabilities? Our focus was creating a publication that would be good for a teacher. And I won’t say – nothing bad about Kansas. It was just a random thing. But it was just somebody who is out there on their own and didn’t really know about kids with multiple disabilities. So that’s where we had some guidelines in terms of development, some concrete lesson plans. So that really started me in publications was working with — and it was so much fun, working with Charlotte, and Mary Jane, and Sue, and Monica. I forget all the people, but it was just really great.
I don’t know. The whole publications thing, part of it – I have to say part of it came from a presentation I did in 1992 at a conference. I presented a small paper on the changing population of kids with deafblindness, and how it changed our role as teachers as kids became more multiply disabled as we move from just kids born during the rubella era of deafblindness, and now the kids are much more complex, and how that changes our roles. And I was shocked at the impact that little paper had in the field and so it was very motivating for me to want to write things because I realized the power, again, the power of the printed word, I think. So I think the motivation for, really, most of the publications that we’ve done is just trying to fill a void, an information void, that was out there. When we started working on Remarkable Conversations, it started as — actually, a group of us were sitting on my back porch — we were, you know, it was meeting.
But it was Barbara Mason and Chris Castro and some of the people that were here a long time ago and Barbara Miles. And we were talking about doing training in deafblind communication. And originally, it was going to be developing training outlines. It started out developing training outlines that trainers could use, teachers could use to go out to do training and communication.
But then we realized as we were talking that was really no big body of work that gave people the whole picture from the beginning to from very young children all the way up that didn’t really address that. So Barbara Miles and I started working together to put this book — it became a book, obviously. And then the team of writers contributed to it. So again, I guess, it was really trying to just fill a void.
And I always felt that Perkins really had a responsibility because we kind of developed a lot of the best practices in the field. And I think there was some stuff written in the ’70s. You know, the Nan Robbins books– are still, people are still using them. But then it died down.
And so I believe Perkins should get theirself out there, put what we know out there for other people to take advantage of. And so like I said, the timing was good for me to start working on some of the other publications with people, helping people put together their publications because it was something– because I was grounded when my son was young. And it’s something I really believed in.
Coit: Well, it seems it worked out.
Riggio: Yeah, it worked out. And then we started with the webcast because that was, again– we were developing our website around that same time. And there was a man at Children’s Hospital that I came to know. And he was knowledgeable about webcasts so we started doing some much less glitzy webcasts than we have now. But if you go back to the archives there’s some– Again, that was in the early 2000s, I think, that we started those.
Coit: And so to switch gears a little bit and Perkins more in general, what do you feel have been the most important changes at Perkins since you started here– the philosophy, programs, buildings, facilities, things like that.
Riggio: Well, I think, really, when I came to Perkins, it was really still the early years of accepting kids with more significant disabilities. And I think that was a huge change for Perkins to do. I think some of the big things I’ve seen is when I came, I think there was four children in the Infant Preschool Program.
And to see how that program grew over the years was really impressive into a program serving hundreds of kids around the state and that recognition of everybody can’t come to Perkins. And we still have a responsibility to those kids who don’t come to Perkins. I think it’s a big shift that we were looking outward more than just, OK, this is our little school, and this is what we do. We were really looking out for the greater population out there. I think that’s big.
And there was a shift, I think, from just providing a traditional classroom program. I saw how the school evolved in terms of starting vocational training programs. I think that was huge, shifting into teaching children through more meaningful activity in the cottages.
I think even though Perkins didn’t write the Expanded Core Curriculum, they, I think, had input into that whole body of work that’s out there on the Expanded Core Curriculum. And I think that was pretty big, shifting, again, like I said, to shift to thinking about all the important things that kids need to learn aside from basic academics. It’s more than learning braille. It’s learning how to live your life as an adult, how to self advocate. I think that those were big, big changes for the better that I’ve seen at Perkins over the years.
Coit: And what are some of the most interesting or important events at Perkins since you’ve been here?
Riggio: Oh, gosh. It depends. I think you know, [it wasn’t] at Perkins. We hosted in 1992, the first [National Conference on Deafblindness]. And I think that was big. And so it’s not really at Perkins. It’s a Perkins event.
Coit: Yeah. That definitely counts.
Riggio: Because I feel like as a field, we were a little field, and we need to be collaborating wherever we can. We get to know so many people in the field. And then I think some of the advocacy work that came out of it in terms of preserving deafblind services, I think that was really important work that we did.
I think it was probably in the late ’80s. I don’t know when it was. But I guess that came before the conference. But the late ’80s, we really ran a risk of losing federal funding for deafblindness. And I think the National Coalition on Deaf-Blindness was formed at Perkins. And great thanks to Mike Collins, again, and Joe McNulty from Helen Keller National Center. They really spearheaded a national effort to preserve that funding that still exists today and I think that’s a big, big event that happened that’s provided a lot of support around the country.
Coit: What are you most proud of in your work at Perkins?
Riggio: I guess I feel most proud of the people you help, you feel like you’ve had an influence on, and who have gone on to do great things. The measure of what we do is what we see other people do because we’ve helped them. I’m most proud of those people that came in and were floundering, and got on track, and really did wonderful things.
Coit: So that’s the end of my questions. Is there anything else that you think we should know or that you want to tell us?
Riggio: No. I guess I feel like I’ve been saying as I’m thinking of moving on, I just think Perkins always needs to think of our responsibility to collaborate with the greater fields of deafblindness and visual impairment, that we do great things here, but we need to make sure that we’re always stepping off the campus and working for the broader good of the field, influencing the international organizations and the national organizations helping sit at the table with other people.
I hope the teachers coming through now– I just always feel so lucky that I was given so many opportunities when I came to Perkins to do so many interesting things and to be at so many interesting forums, that I hope that Perkins will continue to encourage staff to step out again and not just leadership people, but teachers to be a part of that bigger conversation in the field. So I guess that’s all.
Coit: Well, thank you. I’m going to stop the recording.