At the age of seven, brothers Bradford and Bryan Manning were told they would go blind. Instead of letting their diagnosis set them back, it became their mission to help others. In May 2016, they launched a clothing brand, Two Blind Brothers, which makes ultra-soft clothing and donates 100% of the profits to research to cure blindness. Their "Trust” campaign, in which visitors are encouraged to “shop blind,” quickly went viral and became a positive force in advocacy for the blind community.
“Trust is something we all need in our lives, both personally and professionally,” said Melody Goodspeed, AFB Major Gifts Specialist, “Our community relies on trust in our everyday lives. I truly admire and respect how the Two Blind Brothers continue to bring this to our community.”
Melody: ... Today and I'm super excited about our guest and I apologize we're running behind a little bit. We had some technical difficulties, but I'm so excited to be with two people that I love, and actually wear my shirt yesterday, I should have worn it today, but let me introduce you to Bradford Manning. How are you, Brad? Did he...
Bryan: I actually don't know if my brother Brad hopped on yet, but this is Bryan.
Melody: But that's Bryan, who's our surprise guest today. Hey Bryan? How are you? Yes. Bryan wasn't going to be a choice. I actually heard him go on and he dropped off. So I don't know what happened, but hi Bryan, how are you?
Bryan: I am delightful. How are all of you?
Melody: We are so great. And we're so excited that you guys have joined us today. I'm really, really excited. I love what you're doing, but we like an AFB, we're so glad to have you. So Bryan, we'll go ahead and get started with you and wait for Brad to come back in. I just love you all's campaign. Can you talk to us a little bit how you started your business.
Bryan: Yeah. So I'll give you a little bit of backstory here. So Brad and I have a disease called Stargardt's disease. And what Stargardt's is, it's a juvenile form of macular degeneration. And I'm sure this group more than most others, understands about inherited retinal eye diseases. But with Stargardt's, we basically lose all of the cells in the center of our vision, but we keep a lot of peripheral vision.
So we can get around, we have pretty good mobility, but any sort of detail work, reading fine print, seeing faces, recognizing people, all are a huge challenge. And at the age of seven years old, Brad's a little older than I am, but his journey to actually find out what his diagnosis was, was super challenging. Because you have to remember, this is almost 30 years ago now. And where the medical world was at that time, just was not where it is today.
And so they actually had to ... My mom and him went to probably five doctors. All of them telling them, "No, we don't know what it is. This might not be the disease. We're not 100% sure." And she finally found a guy who dyed his blood and basically the dye would appear in the eyes, so you could see the scar totter. And he walks back into the doctor's office after figuring out the diagnosis and tells my mother and tells Brad, that he should go home and prepare to go blind.
Get a magnifier, maybe learn braille, but there just was no cure in sight. And it's funny, because our mom was pretty shook up at that moment. And they get back to the car and Brad says, he's looking at mom. Mom has her hands kind of white knuckled on the steering wheel and is just almost in tears. But she looks at Bryan and says, "You know what? F this. We're going to Friendly's and we're going to get so much ice cream, we're both going to get sick."
And they went to Friendly's and then they went to Blockbuster, this old antique Netflix type co-organization. And basically Brad got Air Bud. The golden retriever that could play basketball and sat there, giant smile on his face, eating ice cream, happy as can be, and basically thought, you know what? This might be the best day of my entire life. And five years later, I had pretty much the exact same experience.
And we were super fortunate from an early age, to have such phenomenal parents. Because when you're adult and you got this type of message, you can cope with it. You have an ability to understand what might be happening to you. But as a seven year old, you have no clue. So we took all of our cues from our parents. And their message and it was steadfast and constant was, yes, this is going to be a challenge, but it is not going to define you.
Your visual impairment may be a disability, but you are going to overcome it. And in fact, you're lucky because you know the hardest thing you're ever going to have to get through in your whole life already. And some people never find that out. And the challenges you're going to go through and the difficulties you're going to have, are going to make you a better and stronger person for it.
And that message has just resonated through our souls ever since. And I'll never forget when I was in high school. I was going to a brand new school, no one there knew me. And I just didn't want to be the blind kid. Like just for one day, I just wanted no one to know. And I had enough vision at that time, where people probably couldn't tell until they kind of got to know me a little better.
Dr. Followell, lots going on in the board, helped me out. What exactly do you want me to do? And he looks, and he goes, "Right here and puts his finger on it." And then I just decided to play dumb, because I was just for this day, I was just going to play dumb because that time being dumb for me, was way better than being blind. So Dr. Follow, I'm sorry. I just don't know how to do it. Not a lot I can do, but maybe you and I can talk after class.
He looks at the problem and he looks at me and he says, "Bryan, it is simple division. Do the problem, stop goofing around." And I just broke. And I had to admit to Dr. Follow to my class and to myself and I just couldn't do it, because I couldn't see it. And this and that admission came out in the worst possible way it ever could have. And it hurt so, so bad. But I realized the big lesson that my parents hadn't taught me yet.
They had taught me that the disability was always going to be a challenge, but I can always overcome it. Well, what I had started to do is to overcome it, I was hiding my disability. I was hiding who I was. And in that moment in that classroom, I realized that I wasn't so hurt and sad because I couldn't see the problem, that was common. I was hurt and sad because I wasn't being authentic to myself. And I wasn't expressing who I was.
And in that moment, like every terrible moment, that little nugget of magic happened to say, okay, blindness isn't the worst disability I can give myself, not being authentic to who I am. And I have a lot of great skills and I'm going to go pursue all of those. So life went on and Brad and I both moved to New York City, which is a city I love. And we're shopping one day at a Bloomingdale's of all places.
And on the walk over, we were talking about [inaudible] and I don't know if any of you have heard of Yannick or, but he had a disease called Leber Congenital Amaurosis LCA, which is a blinding disease in children. And something akin to a miracle had happened. This organization called Spark Therapeutics had developed a cure for some forms of LCA. And basically took Yannick from blind to sighting, from reading braille, to reading print.
And it's for a very small niche group of people, but it still was just magic to us. And it was all from a very small gift from the foundation fighting blindness in 1996 and this iron woman of researchers, Jean Bennett. So we are shopping in the Bloomingdale's and like many of you on the call, shopping is a huge pain in the butt. It's no fun, it's always hard. And our solution is we run around like we're five years old, we touch everything.
I'm sure store attendants adore us. And then we feel for quality and then we pull it off the shelf. And then we do all of the investigation to see if we actually like it. Well about 45 minutes later, Brad and I leave the store. We had lost each other in about minute one. And we come outside and lo and behold, we had actually bought the exact same shirt.
Melody: That is awesome.
Bryan: It was so goofy and so funny. And we just had this kind of like, why did we do that? We were talking about, because we experience the world through our hands. We focus on touch and feel so much. And so Brad and I played rock paper scissors. I lost, I'm still like 10% better about that. Even after everything that sticks out-
Melody: Hey, did Brad join us? Has he gotten here yet?
Brad: I am, but I'm going to be honest. It's rare that I get to sit back and watch Bryan do the work. And it's even more rare when he's doing a good job.
Bryan: Oh, come on buddy.
Brad: I've really just been enjoying this. I'm just muting and listening to Bryan wax poetic, lies about our story. No, this is-
Melody: I just wanted to make sure he was telling the story accurately. Hi Bryan? Thanks Brad. So glad you're here.
Brad: No, no, no worries. Yeah. Sorry for the delay. By the time the COVID vaccine is distributed, I will figure out how to do a Zoom call.
Bryan: I got to be honest. I'm a little disappointed at ECR, because I was about to tell him how terrible he was and how phenomenal I am in a very loving way. But now kind of my plans are thrown at miss.
Melody: I love it. This is work that makes me laugh. Okay. So you both got the same shirt, which is awesome.
Bryan: So we both got the same shirt. And now, we have this big conversation of, "Hey, maybe there's something to this. Maybe that touch and feel concept is so core to this idea of visual impairment. And what if we can take that and we can make the best fitting and feeling apparel in the world. And we can donate 100% of our profits back to retinal researchers, to try and find the next phase of these cures for blindness. And that was when our little clothing project, Two Blind Brothers was born. And I'll let Brad pick up the yarn here to keep spinning.
Brad: Yeah. And I want to make sure we keep it fairly short, so we can get to your questions. But basically, we made a short video. A friend of ours who was a Starbucks barista by day videographer by night, basically filmed us in the course of an afternoon telling our story. And Bryan and I had no marketing background, we had no e-commerce background where we really had no reason to be doing it other than the fact that it was fun.
And to help a cause that we were passionate about, that ended up leading to a bunch of great publicity, it led to some local news, it snowballed up to the Ellen DeGeneres show. , which was a huge inflection point for us also very nerve wracking. But the point that I'll just make on the momentum, is that we quickly found out really what the heart of this project was. And that's the community.
As soon as we started selling and advertising and doing any sort of news, we heard from folks who were in similar situations as ours, related situations to what we were in, moms with kids, dads with kids, folks who are recently diagnosed at older ages, and also a lot of people that wanted to help. That's how we got connected to Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind originally. Now we work with industries for the blind. It's how we've met you, it's how we've worked with NFB, Guide Dogs for the Blind.
And so that is really become the big stool, the third pillar behind the desire to help the research and to make great clothes. It's really about the community and our ability to try to move the community forward. And we've had a lot of great adventures along the way.
Melody: Well, Brad and Bryan, I love that so much. And what I really love too is, we talked about trust. And I love how we've really, talk about the trust campaign house. Because we do as blind people ... Bryan, when you were talking, I mean, I'm totally blind too. I lost my sight when I was an adult. But I agree. I had to come to terms too with that. It isn't the disability, it's the, not being authentic to ourselves.
So thank you for pointing that out. I do want to point that out, because we all do need to be authentic and true to who we are. But let's talk about that with inclusion through the lens of trust. And how you guys have had that goal.
Brad: Yeah. I can jump in. So, essentially Bryan and I talk about how we live in this ridiculous moment in time, where we have all this technology, all this medicine, all these things kind of moving forward. They're not perfect, but they're getting better and better. And how much better it was than 20 years ago when we were young kids. But that, despite all of that, the best tool that we ever learned, was learning to put small amounts of trust in others.
So if we can't see something, we might ask the person next to us to let us know what it says. If we can't see a menu in a restaurant, asking the waiter, "What do you recommend?" If we can't see a street sign, might asking the person next to us, "Hey, how do I get to this place?" And those little acts of trust, have really helped level the playing field for us in a lot of situations.
And so we wanted to see if we could kind of mimic that experience of trust through our store online. So we have something called the shop line challenge, where basically we have all of our customers, any visitor, they don't get to see a picture, they don't get to read the description, they don't get to get any info or hints, they're just shown a price point and asked, "Would you shop blind? Will you trust us and shop blind?"
And it's been a really interesting, wonderful thing for our business, wonderful for kind of creating moments and starting conversations like this. And it's people think it's about blindness, it's actually about trust, which you're pointing out. But it's been a really fascinating experiment for our company.
Melody: That is awesome. Because there is a lot of trust and I think it, and I love what you're doing, because you're flipping it. Right? And we all need to understand that we all have to have different, these little levels of trust and everybody's daily lives because at the end of they day, they were people. How do you notice, I'm going to ask this really quick before we move into question and answers went by too fast. I'm totally excited to have both of you. How do you think that's really like what you've done and really blown up advocacy for our community? Have you seen that change people's perspectives on blindness?
Bryan: It's a really, really great question. And I don't know how it's changed outside people's perspective, but I know that for me, is I really never met anybody with a visual impairment before TBB. There'll be one-
Brad: Bryan I'm right here. I'm right here.
Bryan: Sorry, sorry, sorry. I never met anybody I liked with a visual impairment until starting TBB. And now I have all of you, but what's been so unbelievable and so fascinating for us, is by putting out our message of empowerment and going out and doing everything that we can and just trying to have as much fun and calling our brand Two Blind Brothers and being so out there, we've gotten to meet so, so many unfathomably talented, interesting, intelligent, successful blind folks.
And all of their stories have encouraged, inspired and moved me forward. When you meet Eric Weihenmayer who is totally blind, but has hiked the seven tallest peaks in the world. We were sitting down with him one day, I go, "Oh, what are you this weekend?" Like my plans were to like see my friends and have a beer and sit on my couch and watch football. And he was like, "Oh, I'm actually going to like 150 mile bike ride to this sandstone cliff. It's about 1000 feet tall. I'm going climb that and I think we're going to do a picnic at the top."
I was like, "Yeah, I'm doing something similar." That's what I'm about to say when I'm shooting at here. But it's the messages that we get from the families in the community that we're in. It just goes to show you how sometimes people put a limitation on themselves and that it absolutely has no right, or no need, or no desire to be there. Because you see these others that are achieving so much and it teaches you that you can as well.
Melody: I Love it. Do you want to tag along to that Brad?
Brad: No, just to say another way, exposure. Exposure will naturally solve a lot of issues that are still, there's issues that have to be solved outside of simply exposure. But when somebody who is unfamiliar with a particular community, actually gets to spend time or witness that community or people in that community, that seems to actually naturally resolve a lot of issues.
You think about, a lot of the great civil rights achievements, a lot of great strides in the disability community. A lot of it comes from being front and center from people actually gaining a familiarity and that's one thing we're big believers. And it's been true in our own lives personally and I think it's true sort of collectively as well.
Melody: No, I couldn't agree more. Guys. I have so enjoyed having you, we are now going to move into question and answers. I'm sure Suzan's going to get flooded, but this has been awesome. This has been so much fun to have both of you. So excited. Suzan, what do you got for us?
Suzan: This is a great conversation.
Melody: It is.
Suzan: This is so much fun. I've been sitting here laughing. First question Melody, is what feedback have you received from the blind community on how your business has opened doors to inclusion?
Brad: Well, I would guess I'm the older brother, so I'll go first. It's interesting. In a conversation like this, it makes sense for us to talk about sort of across the spectrum. But the way we find that a lot of people experience the feeling of inclusion, is on a personal level. So our best anecdotes are from people who are in the community, who either shop the brand, buy the product and then tell us about it. Or when we get a chance to talk, we got a chance to meet a woman Angela, who works in industries for the blind, who works on our sunglasses, or getting to go to Guide Dogs for the Blind, or one of the NFB conferences.
And people are just ... This is one of the strongest communities that I've ever encountered. I mean, I see so much support, so much collaboration, so much understanding. I think the shared challenge of figuring out just the unique challenges of life, when they aren't written in a playbook like they are for people who may not have those challenges, then you get people who understand the power of collaboration, of working together, persevering and thinking creatively.
And it's been, as mentioned earlier, it's one of the most rewarding and inspiring parts of the project, is the fact that we get to actually work with all different kinds of folks in this community and organizations.
Melody: That is awesome. Do you have another question, Suzan?
Suzan: Yeah, we have another one. What advice would you give to be an advocate in your own community?
Bryan: Yeah. It's a great question. And I think advocacy, a lot of it comes from two things and Brad and I, Brad and I see this a lot. One, authenticity. You have to be authentic about where you're coming from and why you care. It could be for anything. Brad and I's visual impairment, but if you have visual impairment, but you also care tremendously about rescue animals, or shelters, whatever you're most passionate about and can be most authentically passionate about, that passion and that authenticity will carry you such, such a long way.
And two, we stress this all the time, is we live in a really interesting age with social media, that you can go out and find the people, if they're in your local community, it's easy because they're right next to you. But if you really care about a very specific thing like Brad and I did at first, with just shirts to help cure blindness, we can reach all of those individuals that care most about that.
And our message can get amplified so quickly through that community's passion. And so I think the two are, authentic passion, as well as kind of an uncommon age where you can speak to people where they are.
Melody: I love the responses for that.
Suzan: Yes, I do too. We have another question. Do we have time for another one Melody?
Brad: Yeah. I have 10, 15 minutes if we need it.
Suzan: Next question. What challenges do you face in owning your own business with a disability?
Brad: Well, it's an odd question for Bryan and I, because we benefited tremendously. We've sort of made it our entire brand. So it's hard for us to-
Bryan: And hold on. I actually, I have a slight qualm to call Brad on disability on business, is really not ... He's doing the best he can. Okay. It's not that funny.
Brad: Well, I mean, the truth of the matter is ... Here's the truth. I mean, there are things that are naturally more challenging. Bryan and I have to spend our time reading through spreadsheets, or for whatever reason, looking at some printed materials. There's a funny moment where we're interviewed by NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. And the interviewer goes, "Oh, and what color is that shirt?" And Bryan says charcoal, but it was green.
I mean, and these things happen. I mean, but they aren't really that special. They've been things that we've kind of learned throughout our whole lives. What I think is most interesting, is not challenges related to our eyesight, which frankly we've all dealt with from the age of, Bryan and I dealt from the age of five and onwards. It's what the actual gifts are.
Because when we think about things like how we had to get up in the front of the classroom and walk to the chalkboard, or meet with a substitute teacher, pull the substitute teacher out of class, who maybe didn't know that we couldn't see something and needed to get the large print version for us, or when we couldn't recognize somebody's face and just needed to kind of address it in that moment. All those lessons about assertiveness, creativity, resourcefulness, those are entrepreneurial skills.
I mean, the art of entrepreneurship, is being presented with a challenge and finding out we're coming up to that wall and figuring out if you had to have to go over it under it, around it, through it. And that is what it's like to have any sort of unique challenge in this world. So in a weird way, we feel blessed to have that experience. I'm sure there are measurable areas where we've been slower to figure something out. But on the whole, we wonder if that our eyesight actually helped cultivate more entrepreneurship.
Melody: I'm saying Amen to that, because I think that we are very creative and you want to talk about innovation and organization. I mean, we can find ways up and down sideways forward. And no, Amen to that. I totally agree. Do we have any more questions you Suzan? Because I have one, if not.
Suzan: We have one more from Sonya. And this one might be a lot of fun.
Bryan: Oh, boy.
Suzan: So Sonya says, "How has it been, as siblings on a similar journey, affect how you dealt with blindness? Support, humor, competition, other, all of the above.
Melody: Oh, I love it Sonya. Good one.
Bryan: Well, let's start with me. No, it actually, It was always a benefit. Brad and I tease each other and we goof around as much as humanly possible. But growing up for me at least as a younger brother, seeing Brad achieving things, going to a great high school and succeeding there and playing a couple of sports, it made me think, oh, I should go do that and I should take it a step further. He got into University of Virginia and I said, "Okay, I'm going to go do that too.
And basically seeing somebody blaze a path ahead of you, allows you to focus so clearly on what is possible. And then if you know that's possible, how much further can you take it? So having that, as well as having the downside, where you're like, ah, this really, I'm having a hard day with this, is really challenging. How'd you get over this? And then having somebody who could bounce the idea back and forth off of you and really create an ecosystem of understanding, which was always really helpful for us, or for me at least.
Brad: Yeah. I'll second that. It was strange when Bryan was first diagnosed with the eye condition. I knew I was still pretty young at the time. I was probably 10 years old. I knew it was a bad day for him, but probably at a deep level, there was a part of me that was excited that I'd have somebody who could live this journey alongside me. And Bryan did take things ... There were plenty of moments.
Driving is a good example. We don't have enough vision now to drive, but when we were 16 in the State of Virginia, you actually could through bioptic lenses. You'd give it a shot. Bryan pushed it further than I did. And it made me realize that I probably could have actually driven a little more, but I was too nervous. He played ... I was a swimmer because I could see the big black line on the bottom of the pool. I was too nervous to get on the field.
Then Bryan played defense on the football team and the lacrosse team. And there were certainly things he couldn't do, but just to see him out there trying, I mean, that leaves the impression. So it helped us. We played off of each other, the competition between brothers, that was good for us. We also knew that we couldn't make an excuse to the family. If we did bad on something, we couldn't blame it on our eyesight, because our other sibling would be there to call us out. So, there was an accountability there as well.
Melody: I love it. That was a really good question. Well, I'm so excited. Where do you guys see things going for the future? Again, entrepreneurs spirit. I know you're kind of thinking forward all the time. What adventures, I have a question. That's what I want to ask, do you see ahead?
Bryan: Well, not super well. I don't see great, so I would say blurry would be the forecast. I'm joking.
Melody: You are right Brad. He is ... No. [inaudible].
Bryan: I'm glad he admits it at least. No, it's so great, because this business has given to us so much. And every three to six months, something big breaks, or some big inflection point happens and we need to rebound, rebuild and regrow the business. And so it always keeps it really exciting. But for the future, I firmly believe that we are very close to a cure for blindness, for a lot of forms of blindness. Throughout my entire life, it was, oh, it's down the road, oh, it's down the road, oh, it's down the road 10 years, 10 years, 10 years.
But I actually think now we're as closer than ever on the five yard line to use a nice analogy. And so Brad and I want to keep growing the business, so we can keep giving money to these early researchers. And we want more than anything to stay in touch and in tune with this community of people, because they have given to us so much and then we want to give back as much as we possibly can.
Melody: I love that. Well guys, Brad, Bryan, thank you guys so much for being here with us today. I know Brad, you've got something and we're going a little bit past time, but I just want to thank you so much for being here today. If people want to follow you or seeing what you're up to, because I know the holidays are coming, where can they go?
Brad: Just twoblindbrothers.com. They can find us on Facebook, or Instagram and now TikToK. We're always putting something out there and we're really grateful to be included today. And frankly, Bryan and I are the by-product of organizations like AFB, like FFP, like all these organizations that have created this community and frankly moved the cause and community forward.
This is a full circle for us to be able to contribute something to the community, because of folks like you all that have helped lift up this community for decades. Not you specifically, I'm not aging you Melody. But I'm just ... AFB-
Melody: Really good for my age then.
Brad: AFB has been there for people like us forever. And we're grateful for all the work that you all are doing, for the messages that you're putting out there. What really gets us, like, up in the morning, is when we hear from folks who maybe they haven't met enough people from the FP community, or seeing that mentor who's going through something similar and they allow their visual challenge to maybe become a psychological one.
We find that to be unacceptable and we want to do everything we can to empower those folks. So, and because of people like you, we're able to do this. So we're really grateful. And if anybody wants to check out the brand, or find us on social media, just search Two Blind Brothers.
Melody: Sure guys. So Brad, thank you so much for that. I'm so thankful for you guys coming today, sharing your story. So many more great stuff here. Just being your authentic self, having fun, doing your passions. I think as blind people, we sometimes forget that we have to feed that other part. So thank you, Bryan for bringing that up as well. And I just, again, thank you guys. I don't want to get off, because this has been so much fun, but thanks for making my day.
And we are moving into our hundredth, our Centennial. That's why I look so good. Just kidding. So we are really excited to be celebrating that with you guys as partners. And if you want to check out what programs and what we're up to at AFB, just visit afb.org. And again, guys have a great rest of your week. Be authentic to yourself, find your passions and thank you so much for joining us. So together, we are better together of creating a life with no limits. Thanks guys. Take care. Thanks Bryan. Thanks Brad.
Bryan: See you guys soon.
Brad: Well said. Thank you. Take care.