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Ed Bryant’s Vision Gave Us Our Voice

by Elizabeth Lunt

Ed at his desk with the Voice. Photo courtesy of Vicki PalmerAfter 21 years as volunteer editor of Voice of the Diabetic, Ed Bryant has retired. It’s been a labor of love, and his project has grown beyond his wildest dreams. In 1986, he sent out 600 copies of the brand-new newsletter to rehabilitation agencies for distribution. When he retired in 2006, over 320,000 copies were going out each quarter to subscribers and through volunteer distributors to health care facilities, community centers and anywhere people need help managing their diabetes. “It just took off like a rocket,” Ed says. The Voice has been soaring ever since—thanks to Ed’s diligence, dedication and determination to get the word out to fellow diabetics.

“Life is not hopeless if you have diabetes and blindness is not synonymous with inability. You can always find a way.” — Ed Bryant

Ed, now 62, was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 14. He had perfect vision until he was 30. He was working as the national manager for a portrait photography business when he realized that he was asking his secretary to take dictation on tasks he had always done himself. By the time he made it to an ophthalmologist he had almost no vision in one eye and the other was going fast. The diagnosis: diabetic retinopathy. Although an operation restored vision in one eye, he lost that one about a year later when a friend accidentally poked him. All of a sudden, he was blind. “Of course it was a shock” he recalls. After a pause he adds cheerfully: “The vision was gone, but you have to keep moving in life.”

And move he did, right to a chapter meeting of the Columbia, Missouri, National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Ed had grown up in Columbia and returned from St. Louis when he lost his vision. Gary Wunder, president of the Missouri NFB, recounted in a tribute speech in February, 2007 (see p. 17) that although Ed’s career had been “snatched away,” Ed did not despair where others would have. Gary recalls that Ed’s response to his sudden blindness was: “There are coping skills out there and I’ll learn them.” Once Ed started learning, he was unstoppable.

Ed was learning to manage his diabetes without vision, but it “irked him to no end” that his mother had to come over and draw his week’s supply of insulin. “It was ridiculous,” he says, a trace of impatience still in his voice. Refusing to rely on his mother, Ed set about inventing an insulin-dispensing device that he could use himself. The first version, which his father and brother made for him in a woodshop, was “big and bulky,” but it worked. Today, he uses the Count-a-Dose (available through the NFB) and says he hasn’t found anything better.

Betty Walker, Karen Mayry, Ed Bryant, Carol Anderson and Delores Olson—Diabetes Action Network officers at the National Federation of the Blind annual convention, Phoenix, Arizona, July 1987Ed is the first to admit that he did not manage his diabetes as well as he could have when he was young. He thinks better control might have prevented some of his complications. But even if you are careful, he says, diabetes can be “mean, nasty and insidious.” Ed firmly believes that people need support to stay with their self-management, which is why he helped to get the Diabetes Action Network (DAN) going and stayed with the Voice for so long. They’re great projects for the NFB, he says, because “there are so many myths in the public about the blindness part of it”—and because so many people lose vision from diabetes.

The link between diabetes and vision loss is why Ed found so much support from within the NFB. “His visionary and devoted leadership in developing and editing the Voice of the Diabetic for years is a true testament to his commitment and care for diabetics throughout the country,” says Dr. Joanne Wilson, Executive Director of Affiliate Action at the NFB. “Ed’s contribution to this important program of the Federation has been second to none. He is one of our most valued leaders.”

Ed’s vision to help people with diabetes became the Voice. In 1985, DAN was brand new, but Ed wanted to spread the word that “life is not hopeless if you have diabetes, and blindness is not synonymous with inability.” He suggested to DAN founder Karen Mayry that they start a newsletter. “Great,” he remembers her saying. “You’re the editor.” And Voice of the Diabetic was born.

“His dedication and commitment are magnificent and unflagging.”
— Dr. Marc Maurer, President, National Federation of the Blind

Over the years Ed found inspiration in his work from the many voices of his fellow diabetics. He took hundreds of calls and got hundreds of letters. He remembers one woman in particular whose doctor told her that she was going blind and that she would have to stay home and let her husband do everything for her. She called Ed to tell him she knew better than that doctor—from reading the Voice. That’s why he continued; so he could make sure people living with diabetes would know they have options. The NFB is full of people who prove this every day, he points out. “They get to where they want to go,” he says. “You can always find a way.”

But Ed is realistic about the fight. With diabetes, he knows, it can be long and hard. Another reader he recalls was from Argentina and was only able to get dialysis when she visited the U.S. She eventually died because the care in her own country was so poor. Ed was shocked that “she was literally dying and could not get help or service.” Her fate renewed his determination to show people that “here in the U.S. we have the resources,” he says. “People [can] continue to live and enjoy life and take care of their diabetes.”

Many readers wrote and called Ed over the years to thank him for his determination. And NFB and DAN executives sing his praises. “His dedication and commitment are magnificent and unflagging,” states Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the NFB. Tom Rivera Ley, a former DAN president, believes that Ed’s work on the Voice will have a positive impact on people for years to come. “You could only accomplish something that great with true passion,” says Tom, “and Ed has passion for educating people with diabetes.”

Indeed, Ed volunteers at a summer camp for diabetic children where he shows them how to inject their insulin and helps them learn self-management. He also leads by example—his own diabetes is now in good control. Three times a week he goes to a gym where he uses a variety of exercise machines to keep fit. He monitors his diet carefully to keep his blood sugar down. “I tell people to cheat in moderation,” Ed says with a chuckle, “maybe one piece of pie instead of a chocolate cake.” For the most part, he says, he’s doing very well.

So what’s next for Ed? He still writes for the Voice and speaks to people who call for support. He spends time with Gail, his wife of 24 years. He’s developed an interest in Civil War artifacts and just had a large display case built for his home. Gary Wunder has invited Ed to help enlarge the Missouri NFB. Many people want a piece of Ed’s time. One thing is certain: We at the Voice have a tough act to follow. Thank you, Ed.