See, what they did!

Updated: Sep 22, 2019, 09:51 IST | Shweta Shiware | Mumbai

With India housing one-third of the world's blind, we should be listening to the inspiring story of the Mannings, who are using their visual impairment to inspire, empower, create jobs and fund research.

Bradford Manning, 34, wears a Two Blind Brothers 
Braille-enhanced tee. Pic/Peter Roessler
Bradford Manning, 34, wears a Two Blind Brothers Braille-enhanced tee. Pic/Peter Roessler

Bradford Manning narrows his eyes as he turns to look up at the basalt turrets of The Gateway of India, his eyes mirroring the gentle blue of the monsoon sky. It's the last day of his week-long break in Mumbai, where he met his partner's Iranian family. Travelling on a CST local and surviving Sassoon Dock's "assault on the senses" topped his list of exciting to-dos. "It was fascinating to see the extreme labour that goes into running an authentic fish market. What will stay with me is the city's diversity. You have places like this," says the American national, pointing to the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers where he is put up, "and then the lanes of Crawford Market," he adds about going hugger-mugger in the alleys to buy dry fruit.

He hurtles over sentences to sneak in a bit about the magical moments of joining members of a pandal during Ganesh visarjan. "I stood out a little, which made me a target for the people with red powder. We don't have a festival quite like it in New York. It was religious, yes, but also a big party. Although I wasn't very good at the dancing."

Manning's incredible attention to detail belies his struggle with Stargardt disease, a condition he has lived with since age seven just like his brother Bryan, 29. The juvenile form of macular degeneration destroys central vision over time, supporting peripheral vision to some extent. And so, it's a bit of surprise when he says the two of them "argue for hours over the length of a Henley shirt's sleeve" while running their online fashion label, Two Blind Brothers (twoblindbrothers.com).

Design

Launched in 2016 as a weekend charity project, it offers a buttery-soft line of T-shirts, Henley shirts, hoodies, polo shirts and trousers for men and women, all Braille-enhanced. This was while they still had full time jobs in finance and software respectively. It was during a shopping trip where they ended up buying the same shirt, responding entirely to touch and feel, that they realised, "Maybe there's something to this."

Braille phrases are incorporated as markers on the garments via logo tags with the word "Feel", a tribute to the mission of creating clothes that focus on comfort and touch. The colour of the garment is mentioned in raised Braille accents in puff paint on the hemline. "It's the simplest way to find that pair of grey shorts you are looking for in your cupboard," Manning says.

The brothers started by ordering fabric books from companies in India, China, Canada, and the US. "We had a lot of fun going through them, feeling each swatch. There were a few times when we liked something, but were told it's dry-clean only. Those were not for us," he remembers. The brothers now work with a tri-blend spun by a Los Angeles firm, that's 66 per cent viscose bamboo, 28 per cent cotton and six per cent spandex or Lycra. "Viscose bamboo is not only sustainable but also unbelievably soft. Spandex helps retains its shape even when you wear it for the hundredth time."

Two Blind Brothers catapulted into a social entrepreneurship business when the Mannings were invited on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "We were terrified!" he says. They filmed their part and were on a plane back home the next day. "When we landed, our phones exploded with orders," Manning smiles. And just like that, the for-friends-and-family passion project ("Mr Jacobs, my physics teacher from school, was our first client") turned into a brand, as the two landed a deal with Sir Richard Branson to sell their shirts on his exclusive Necker Island resort.

Express publicity aside, Manning says the most significant part about the exposure was receiving thousands of messages from those who shared a similar eye condition. "We had great parents who raised us with values of self-esteem and understanding," he says of the couple from Charlottesville, Virginia. "Ellen gave us the opportunity to go back in time to that moment when we'd tell our mother, 'it's going to be alright'."

The show also introduced them to Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind, a non-profit that provides employment to 70 per cent blind or visually impaired staff, also the capable hands behind most of the cutting and sewing for Two Blind Brothers. Manning hopes to make this a conception-to-sales blindness supporting model. "The problem might not be as dramatic as it is in India, but 50 per cent of visually impaired people in the US are unemployed. There are nearly 200 million who are blind or partially impaired worldwide, and I don't quite know how one can fix that. But, technology and medicine are going to pave the way for incredible change, especially for those who might have traditionally felt disfranchised or have seen impairment as a burden. I can triple tap on my iPhone to see what I I need to see, or just ask Siri about the weather or get her to order me a cab. And just like that, I am back in the game."

Hundred per cent of their profits go towards Foundation Fighting Blindness, one of the world's leading private funders of retinal disease research. "People often ask me, why spell it out [in the brand name]? While growing up, we never broadcast it [the condition]," he says. They did it because their brand is a vehicle to put out a message. "That we can do this is fantastic. We get to talk about how sometimes, the great challenges you face in life can offer you a lot of gifts," he says hinting at the obvious irony of two people who never cared for fashion choosing it as a tool for change.

Design

A week ago, the Mannings received a heartbreaking mail from a 19-year-old university student diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that leads to loss of night and peripheral vision, and in many cases, full blindness. He wrote: "I've been skipping classes and sleeping a lot because I'd rather be asleep where I can dream in 20/20 perfect vision than stay awake going blind." Bradford says, after watching their videos, the young man was encouraged.

Social media has been of significant help to propagate awareness, connect with the visually impaired and make the sighted, committed collaborators. The Trust campaign which they launched last November to tell shoppers what it's like to "shop blind" saw them black out the images and descriptions of clothing from their website. Customers were given a choice of three different price points to purchase. They had no idea what they were buying but were assured a refund if they weren't happy with the choice or size. Within three weeks, the campaign went viral, reaching over five million people. "That fashion can be approachable, is about shared values and can empower a community, is what excites me."

Doing business with a brother

"I do everything. Bryan is just a pretty face! (laughs) One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to start a company with your brother. I am kind of half kidding because Bryan and I, we think alike, but we also get into fights over what buttons to use and the length of the sleeves, even if it's a mere matter of an inch. When it comes to the design of a Henley shirt, I like the way the sleeve hangs; it comes over the wrist, just a little bit."

What do these words mean to you?

Normal

I want to say, bulls*it, but I can't. Who feels normal all the time? We have all felt like outsiders at some point. Normal is a concept that reflects what we perceive as mainstream, but the truth is that feeling normal comes from self-awareness. If you know who you are, you can find your community.

Stylish

Representing yourself in a way that's authentic to you.

Disability

A label with a lot of misleading connotations.

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