Mark Riccobono, President

Mark Riccobono

Born in 1976, Mark Riccobono is the only child of two hard-working parents of modest means. Both were high school graduates, and, although they encouraged their son and gave him an example of what persistence and hard work could do, they had no experience of higher education and no familiarity with blindness. Riccobono was diagnosed as legally blind at the age of five, glaucoma being the disease that took his sight. Although he knew he had a vision problem, as a child he never felt limited in what he could do. Being an only child just meant he relied more on friends, and his elementary years have left him with good memories. He benefited from going to his neighborhood school because his contact with children was not just at school but in play, birthday celebrations, and school holidays. His low vision meant he sometimes had to work harder, but the print was large, he got a seat in the front of the room, his teachers did what they could to help, and his friends were comfortable with their buddy who didn't see quite as well as they did. "I was comfortable in my own skin, and that made others around me comfortable as well." The obstacles he faced and the fact that he had some limitations simply emphasized that he should do what his parents did when things got tough: they just worked hard and powered through, and powering through became an indispensable part of his personality.

Riccobono got a very good elementary education, but found himself in a rough middle school. It was probably what would be called a failing school today. Many of his elementary school friends went to other middle schools, so his social network began to evaporate. Now there were new friends to make and already established groups who had reservations about adding new members to their circles, and this further added to what was already a difficult transition. The year before he entered the school there had been a stabbing, and little emphasis was placed on academic success. This was the place where he learned to stay under the radar, to isolate himself from others, and to decide his place was in the back of the classroom, where he was less likely to be noticed or called on. There were no services to deal with vision loss, and the only accommodation he can recall receiving was a special lock for his locker that he could operate.

Without a good way to read and to see the blackboard, he learned to rely on memory, but even a good memory could not consistently deliver good test scores, and he believes that sometimes he was simply passed.

Riccobono remembers that he was sometimes challenged to do better and that often it was the math teachers who would ask more of him. But he was all too frequently allowed just to exist there in the back of the room with the students least likely to raise their hands, shout out answers, or be called upon by the classroom teacher. Riccobono describes this as learning to “be a passenger in my own life.”

To add to the difficulty of middle school, surgeries for glaucoma in eighth grade not only caused him to miss school, but eventually cost him a significant amount of the little vision he had. An uncle who observed these futile attempts asked his nephew, "What are you going to do if it doesn't work? What will you do if you don't get vision back?"

"I began to ask myself with each surgery whether we might not be chasing the unreachable dream," Riccobono said. A surgery performed to burn off some of the scar tissue proved to be too effective, destroying the vision in his left eye and eventually causing it to shrink.

So Riccobono went into high school totally blind in one eye and with little vision in the other. In Milwaukee one could choose a high school based on its specialty, and Riccobono chose the one that emphasized business and becoming an entrepreneur. Unbeknownst to him when he made his choice, this school had a resource room for blind students. This was the first time he had considered that there might be others facing the challenges that made school difficult.

Riccobono is glad he chose to attend the high school emphasizing business. The teachers saw potential in him, and, for the first time in a long time, he found himself surrounded by people who believed he had capacity. "High school was better than middle school had been; it had some very good teachers who believed in my capacity, and it had people who worked to mentor me. They didn't understand where blindness fit into my career possibilities, but they knew how to teach, saw potential in me, and were determined to cultivate it."

He joined DECA, an association founded in 1946 to prepare emerging leaders and entrepreneurs. In this organization he engaged in competitions in public speaking, marketing, and creating a business plan. As a high school senior he was involved in statewide competition, where he won first place in public speaking and earned himself the opportunity to compete in national competitions representing the state of Wisconsin. During that same year he started a school based business selling sports cards based on a business plan he developed the previous year.

After high school Riccobono arrived at the University of Wisconsin with a folding cane, a laptop computer with no screen-reading or screen-enlargement software, and a closed circuit television to enlarge paper documents. "I had to study a lot because I read slowly and memorization was the key to any success I might enjoy.” But even with the extreme focus he placed on academics, Riccobono hit the wall in his sophomore year and almost failed a computer class because he had no access to the machines. Eventually his rehabilitation counselor sent him for a technology evaluation, and the use of speech and other technology was recommended. At this point Riccobono started reaching out to other blind people, knowing that, if some of them were successful, they had to be doing something he was not. He knew that the barriers he was facing were real and that he was making a significant effort to overcome them, but he was learning that effort alone was not enough: he needed techniques, strategies, and building on the experiences of others. So it was that he came to find the National Federation of the Blind, won a state scholarship, and attended the national convention in 1996. "A lot of what I heard at the convention resonated with me—gave me real hope—but I wasn't sure it was real because I hadn't had the chance to test it myself. But whatever skepticism I had, the truth is that my predominant emotions were excitement and hope that what these people were saying was true. For the first time in my life it was clear to me that in this group it didn't matter how much or how little I could see. In this group no one ever asked or tried to limit where I could go. For the first time I didn't feel as though I had to decide what I would or would not do based on my vision."

In the summer after he found the Federation, Riccobono learned Braille, started using the white cane, and came to understand that blind people used other techniques that might help him. He immediately began testing what the Federation said about blindness and encouraged other students to do the same. In the fall of 1996 he founded and became the first President of the Wisconsin Association of Blind Students (a division of the NFB of Wisconsin). He also began rebuilding his dreams. He secured employment with the disability resource center on campus and coordinated the delivery of accessible materials to other students. Riccobono also began expanding his participation in the campus community, knowing that blindness was not the thing that held him back but rather his own low expectations learned over many years. Among his new activities Riccobono became the first blind person at the university to be certified to independently sail one-person sail boats in the Hoofers Sailing Program on Lake Mendota.

Riccobono finished college in May of 1999 with a degree in business administration, majoring in marketing and minoring in economics. He interviewed with Sears in his senior year of college and already had a job offer in hand when he graduated. While attending the Washington Seminar, people asked what he intended to do between his graduation in May and the start of his new job in August. They suggested he use this time for training. Finding the advice sound, he attended the Colorado Center for the Blind. There he worked on attitudes and skills and had a chance to test some of the Federation ideas he had thought about with such hope. He found they had verity in his life.

After training with Sears, Riccobono moved to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where he rented an apartment about three blocks from where he had grown up. At this point he was feeling good about himself: a college graduate with a job, living on his own, and the recently elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin, having won that post in 1998. Before his election a proposal had been advanced to close the state's school for the blind. Riccobono was appointed to serve on an advisory committee charged with transforming the institution from a school to a center where ten programs serving the blind would be housed, one of them being the school for the blind. Riccobono learned from the Federation that his true passion was not necessarily business (although he exhibits the thinking of an entrepreneur in everything he does) but rather education and building innovative educational programs. When the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired was established, Riccobono was hired as its director shortly before his twenty-fourth birthday. He headed an agency with a budget of six million dollars and began to implement programs that required more of staff and students, consistent with the expectations of blind people he found in the Federation. He worked at the Wisconsin Center for three and a half years, and an audit ordered by the implementing legislation gave the new center good marks and was the best the school had received in over a decade. But Riccobono found making changes at the center painfully slow and thought that his focus on improving education would be better served by working on a national level. Having concluded that Riccobono possessed some skills that would be valuable at the Jernigan Institute, President Maurer hired him, and he and his wife Melissa (a strong leader, advocate, and educator in her own right) moved to Baltimore. After working for some time in education, he became the executive director of the Jernigan Institute, a position he held until his election as the president of the National Federation of the Blind in July of 2014. In his Federation work he has led a number of critical initiatives including: establishment of the National Center for Blind Youth in Science, building a national mentoring program, expanding Braille literacy programs including the NFB Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning program, development of cutting-edge technologies including a car that a blind person can drive (the NFB Blind Driver Challenge®), many advocacy priorities, affiliate-building projects, and serving as a point person for key relationships with NFB partners.

Mark and Melissa have three children: Austin born in December 2006, Oriana born in May 2010, and Elizabeth born in June 2012, all of whom are growing up in the Federation. Their daughters both carry the same eye condition that Mark has, but they will have greater opportunities than their dad because of their connection to the National Federation of the Blind. With the emphasis on social media, YouTube, and communication that goes beyond the written word, his family and their activities have been more visible than those of earlier leaders. "While as a family we draw some lines, we are generally pretty comfortable with letting people know what we are doing, the message being that we lead normal lives and do the same things others with children do. We try to show people what we have learned—that blindness does not prevent us from being the kind of parents we want to be and from living the lives we want." Riccobono is always building—his social media presence frequently shows him engineering new creations out of Legos with his children.

When asked about his responsibilities as the newly elected president of the National Federation of the Blind and whether it is scary trying to fill the shoes of former President Maurer, Riccobono says, "It isn't so much trying to fill someone's shoes as building on a foundation. It is a tremendous responsibility to figure out how to go farther, to strengthen the movement, to lead in such a way that we go forward and build on what we have been given. My challenge is to meet the expectations of folks who have given a lot and have been around a long time, to meet their expectations and let them know they are still wanted, valued, and needed, while at the same time recognizing that the world is changing, that the organization must continue to evolve, and assuring people that these requirements are not in conflict but a part of continuing to exist and thrive. I worry less about the shoes I must fill or the comparisons that will be made than I do about figuring out how to lead us in the miles we must go, preserving the resources we have, while spending enough of them to make the world what we want it to be. I feel grateful that Dr. Maurer recognizes my challenge—he has had to face it in his own transition and presidency, and I feel confident that most of our members understand this too. The nature of this office demonstrates daily just how far we have to go, and, although we have a tremendous organization and significant resources, we have just a fraction of what we need to do the work that remains.

"In accepting the presidency of this organization, I pledged to give all of my energy, my creativity, and my love to our movement. This is how I intend to pay it back, pay it forward, and make a future full of opportunity for blind people. I have no illusions that this will be easy, but I have every expectation that it will happen when all of us pull together to create the kind of future in which we truly live the lives we want."