Riggio, inside the museum of the Perkins School for the Blind. Image: Lee Pellegrini

In high school, Marianne Riggio, a Weston, Massachusetts, native, volunteered at the now-defunct Fernald State School for the developmentally disabled, and gravitated toward the children whom others seemed “most scared off by”—those who had both visual and hearing impairment. “The challenge of communicating spoke to me,” she says. Concentrating in special education, Riggio earned her B.A. and M.A. at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, which had created the country’s first deafblind teacher preparation program, in response to the 1964–65 rubella epidemic that left some 14,500 U.S. children deaf or blind. She is currently director of the internationally focused Educational Leadership Program at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, where Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan, whom Keller called Teacher, studied.

“There is no ‘normal’ deafblind learner,” says Riggio. “Every one communicates differently,” whether through Braille, fingerspelling, or body movement. “And when you take the time to find the right sensory stimulation, it’s thrilling. Their whole demeanor changes.” “Children with visual impairment often enjoy playing with light and shadows,” she says. “Join them.” Interact with them continually in ways that “may or may not use words.” Deafblind learners’ perceptions “only extend as far as their fingertips,” says Riggio. And so, to understand the world, they need more than “materials on a desk.” They must help get the materials “from the cupboard” and then return them, to learn that “things exist even if they are not in their hands.”

Before 1975, only one in five disabled children in the United States attended public school, and many state laws excluded deafblind children. Riggio began her career in 1976, one year after the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act mandated equal access. Over the last 37 years at Perkins, she’s helped develop standards for educators of the deafblind—training hundreds of teachers in 20 states, from New Hampshire to California; assessing classrooms (introducing patchworked floor surfaces, for instance, to define activity areas); and publishing eight first-of-a-kind handbooks, including, in 1999, Remarkable Conversations: A Guide to Developing Meaningful Communication with Children and Young Adults Who Are Deafblind(with specialist Barbara Miles).

Riggio became a founding member of Perkins’s international outreach project in 1989, when programs for children with visual impairment and multiple disabilities served only an estimated 250 children outside the United States. The Perkins project alone now serves 61,500 children globally.