When Matthew Walzer thought of going to college, he was a bit nervous. He has cerebral palsy, a disorder that impacts his walking, balance and some fine motor skills. While he manages most tasks, he still struggled to tie his shoes.
“It really started to bother me especially because the further you get in high school, you're thinking about the future,” Walzer, 25, of Southwestern Florida, told TODAY. “How am I going to ever live on my own and be independent if I have to worry about my parents coming to tie my shoes every day … No one wants to feel weighed down by something as simple for most people as tying their shoes.”
So, in 2012, the then 16-year-old wrote a letter to Nike. Walzer’s letter explained his dilemma:
“I've worn Nike basketball shoes all my life. I can only wear this type of shoe because I need ankle support to walk,” he wrote. “I know that Nike makes slip-ons, sandals and other types of shoes. However, I and many other physically challenged people are unable to wear them due to a lack of support."
Now nearly a decade after that letter, Nike’s Go FlyEase offers a completely hands-free way for people to put on shoes, which makes it easier for many people with disabilities to wear shoes.
Walzer said he sent the letter for himself and other people with disabilities who faced similar challenges.
“I wanted to go away to college,” he said. “The college of my choice (included) not having to worry about who was going to put on my shoes every day. I wrote a message for that, but I wrote it for the millions of other people with disabilities in the world who struggle with putting on their shoes for one reason or another.”
His letter became viral after a sneaker blog “Nice Kicks” shared it. Still, he didn’t expect a response and when one arrived less than two months later, he was stunned.
“They wanted to know what my specific needs were,” Walzer said. “They wanted to know why I can't tie my shoes, to hear it straight from me. Also, I explained that I have a lack of dorsal and plantar flexion my feet. So, it's hard for me to get my foot down in a shoe.”
When Walzer was 17 he received a pair of shoes from Nike with “a zipper up the middle, and Walzer on the zipper pull tab and then a Velcro strap on the ankle, no laces.”
“It was the first time in my life at 17 years old that I put my own shoes on independently,” he said. “It was an extremely emotional moment for myself and my family. A lot of tears.”
From 2012 to 2015, Walzer spoke with Nike designers offering feedback on what worked and what didn’t. He was able to try out a pair of “rear-entry” shoes that also made it easier. He applauds Nike for its commitment to working with people with disabilities.
“Companies really need to make it a point to not only listen to the disabled community but also design with disability in mind,” he said. “As a disabled population, we’ve always had to adapt to the environment with literally everything — clothes, shoes, technology. Now, truly, the world needs to start adapting to us and thinking about how they can make it … easier for people with disabilities.”
Sarah Reinertsen, who works on the Nike FlyEase Innovation Team and is the first women using a prosthetic leg to finish an Ironman race, said that working with athletes and consumers remains essential to their process.
“We always listen to the voice of the athlete,” Reinersten told TODAY. “We've been very sharp on listening to the voices of people with disabilities.”
She said that development on adaptive shoes first started when an employee experienced a stroke and then struggled to put on shoes after. Contributions from people, such as Walzer, Nike staff with disabilities and athletes helped push the design.
“When you truly connect and you listen and you spend time, it does become so personal,” she said. “There's this drive to solve even more because you care because you want to help people.”
Universal design, creating products that can be used by all people, leads to better products for everyone.
“When you design for the most extreme needs, you unlock benefits for all. And while these innovations might be even more impactful for those with extreme needs, we all benefit, and it makes our lives easier,” Reinersten said. “We don't want to just imagine what it's like, we got to talk to folks and say, ‘Hey, we've tried this. How does it work for you?’”
She is thrilled by the hands-free shoe and what it means for people with disabilities and without them.
“This is just the beginning of the journey,” she said. “The shoe is just so beautiful and I just love the position that it's really changed how people step in and out (of a shoe).”