What would you do if the world around you started disappearing?
When Bradford Manning began to lose his vision at about 5 years old, "panic and anxiety set in," he tells PEOPLE. Two years later, a doctor diagnosed Manning with Stargardt disease — a rare genetic eye disorder that can cause blindness.
Manning’s younger brother, Bryan, would soon be diagnosed with the same condition.
Growing up with the disease came with its many challenges and awkward moments, the brothers note: meeting a new friend and immediately forgetting what they look like, constantly squinting to see what a teacher writes on the chalkboard, not being able to drive.
"It can be super isolating," Bryan, 30, says. "People can’t see your visibility, so you deal with people who make comments or do things that can really hurt if you aren’t willing to own up to who you are."
The New York brothers have dedicated their lives — and work — to finding a cure for eye diseases like theirs.
In 2016, they founded the clothing brand Two Blind Brothers, which simulates the experience of shopping while blind. All profits benefit organizations like the Foundation for Fighting Blindness that research prevention, treatments and cures for degenerative eye conditions.
Nearly 3 percent of children younger than 18 are blind or visually impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 93 million adults in the United States, however, are at high risk for serious vision loss. Yet only half have visited an eye doctor in the past year.
Inspiration for the brand came during a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s in New York City. The brothers were celebrating the news that experimental gene therapy had successfully reversed a teenager’s blindness.
Eventually, they lost each other somewhere between the ties and shoe departments, and once they reunited, discovered they bought the same soft shirt.
"That set off a light bulb in our heads," Bradford recalls. "We thought, ‘What if this could be our way to make medical breakthroughs on blindness feel real to people? What if we started a clothing brand to help the groups doing this research?' "
"When you’re blind, the one thing you learn quickly is trust," Bryan continues. "You have to put out these little moments of trust in people, like the trust that a cab driver will drop you off in the right street corner, a waiter will give you a good meal recommendation, or you’ll get the right change from a cashier because you can’t see for yourself.
Bryan adds, "With Two Blind Brothers, we thought, 'What if we give the world the opportunity to trust us?' "
So, how does it work? Shoppers choose a mystery box on the brand’s website ranging from $30 to $189 that contains a mix of their ultra-soft shirts, socks, beanies and sunglasses. Shoppers can also browse their line of Henleys, hoodies, joggers, socks and other accessories for men, women and kids instead.
The brand is inclusive and mindful of its blind clientele, too. They’ve stitched braille into some of the designs. On twoblindbrothers.com, the Mannings set up a feature for people to "see how we see" — shopping on a blurred screen with only limited peripheral vision to help.
To date the company has raised more than $750,000 for the cause, catching the attention of celebrities like Ice-T and Ellen DeGeneres, who interviewed the pair in 2017 and cut them a $30,000 check to use toward their initiative.
Bryan calls the support "unbelievable" and says it has inspired them to make Two Blind Brothers a place of hope for others in the blind community.
"Sitting down and having a conversation with a mother whose kid was just diagnosed with an eye disease or a young professional who just got his diagnosis to comfort them and make their world spin a little slower … nothing’s better," Bryan says. "Actually being able to help a person when they need you is my favorite part of the whole business, and I’d love to keep that as a huge part of what we do."
A 19-year-old college student who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which can cause total blindness over time, recently reached out to the Mannings through their website.
The student shared that life had felt like hell following his diagnosis, but reading about Two Blind Brothers gave him hope and showed him he wasn’t alone in his battle.
"Bryan and I didn’t have people around us growing up with this condition," Bradford says. "The opportunity to make someone with vision impairment or blindness feel better about themselves and live their lives, that drives us."
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