Another Federationist at Work: Gail Bryant Honored

From the Editor: Every time a blind person ventures out into the world, he or she teaches others something about blindness. Sometimes we wish those lessons had not been taught, and sometimes the lessons are wonderful demonstrations of ability, good sense, and dedication. The following article came from Ed Bryant, the President of the Diabetes Action Network and Editor of the Voice of the Diabetic. In this case he is also the proud husband of a dedicated Federationist who was recently honored. The NFB is mentioned only once, but our philosophy and view of the world shine in every sentence. The piece was written by Qingchun Guo and Holly Surbaugh and appeared in the March 2, 2000, issue of the Columbia Missourian.

Teaching the Blind

Gail Bryant teaches people to read and write. Her students range from grade-schoolers to senior citizens. They receive one-on-one instruction in school or in their homes.

They are also blind or visually impaired. So is Bryant.

Bryant recently received the Missouri Small Business Development Center's 1999 Excellence in Business Award for her small enterprise, Columbia Braille Teaching Services. Her first reaction when she heard the news was utter astonishment.

"I was shocked, flabbergasted, because I was just out there doing my job," Bryant said, "I don't think of myself as extraordinary. I don't think of my job as extraordinary, and I don't treat my students as extra-special or extraordinary."

Others, however, find her accomplishments impressive.

"She inspires everyone she meets, both those who assist her and those she assists," said Lil Ferrell, a former SBDC counselor/instructor who helped Bryant start her business.

Blind from birth, Bryant's disability has worked to her advantage in connecting with her students. She not only teaches blind and visually impaired people Braille but also trains them in computer software and home management skills. Hers is the only such business in the state to serve both children and adults.

Bryant started when the Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, a subdivision of the Jefferson City Department of Social Services, sought individual contractors to teach the blind.

"I really didn't think it would grow into a full-fledged business," Bryant said. "As things developed, it sort of mushroomed."

With Ferrell's help Bryant jumped through the typical hoops for starting a new business. She came up with a business plan and scouted for potential clients at local schools. She also hired a driver and completed training in using and teaching Window-Eyes, computer software designed for the visually impaired.

"Really, she was just like another client starting a business," Ferrell said. Funds from Rehabilitation Services for the Blind helped supply equipment and start-up costs.

"Ms. Bryant is an excellent example of a professional business person and a successful instructor," said Jim Brinkman, a counselor at Rehabilitation Services for the Blind.

Bryant got her first client in mid-1997. Since those first lessons Bryant has taught visually impaired adults and children to deal with more than one kind of blindness. She often finds herself educating school teachers, staff, and families in the right way to work with blind people. She said the most difficult part of her job is changing the attitudes that the blind cannot have meaningful lives and that they require special treatment.

"A lot of my job is teaching confidence," Bryant said. "I have to come in and work with them, and I have to do it so that the child, the parent, and the school can all maintain a certain level of dignity and respect."

Bryant still struggles for that same respect herself as a fledgling entrepreneur. "I'm not taken seriously," Bryant said. "In some circles I'm just this nice lady who comes to teach little Johnny Braille."

Bryant hopes this award will add to her credibility, but she will not rest on its strength alone. She has also just commissioned a new marketing brochure, and she is considering enrolling in college classes to get Department of Elementary and Secondary Education certification in her field.

The former housewife already has a master's of education in rehabilitation counseling. Her advocacy work with the National Federation of the Blind and volunteer service, such as working with battered women at The Shelter, has given her a wealth of experience. And her background in counseling has given her skills she now uses to get her message across to anyone who would doubt a blind person's capability.

"Anybody who has a child, regardless of their handicap or disability, should not be afraid if they want their child to go to a public school," Bryant said. "It should never be viewed as a statement of hopelessness or helplessness. By the same token, if there is someone who is newly blind as an adult, they shouldn't be afraid to ask for help."