As a junior in high school back in 2012, Matthew Walzer was, like many teens his age, excited at the looming prospect of going away to college and the sense of freedom it offered. But he also knew that real independence would elude him until he mastered one skill: tying his shoes.
As the result of a brain injury caused by being born two months premature, Walzer has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder which he says impairs his balance and fine motor skills. Some tasks, like writing or opening a bottle, he’d managed to master after years of practice. Tying his shoes was not one of them.
“I wanted to go away and have that full college experience,” Walzer, now 25, tells Yahoo Life in the video above. “I wanted to have independence with being able to put on my own shoes and not have to worry about my parents tying my shoes anymore, or finding some random person [to help while] starting out as a college freshman.”
And so he decided to turn to this favorite shoe company for help. Three years later, the “easy-entry” Nike FlyEase line was born, making sneakers more accessible and paving the way for this month’s reveal of the brand’s first hands-free shoe, the GOFlyEase. The slip-on sneakers will be released on March 19.
“I've worn Nike basketball shoes all my life,” Walzer, then a student at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., wrote to the company in the 2012 letter that inspired it all. “I can only wear this type of shoe because I need ankle support to walk.”
After outlining his accomplishments and opening up about the lack of flexibility in one hand that made gripping and looping laces impossible, he challenged Nike to make a disability-friendly innovation.
“At 16 years I am able to completely dress myself, but my parents still have to tie my shoes,” he wrote. “As a teenager who is striving to become totally self-sufficient. I find this extremely frustrating, and at times embarrassing. I know that Nike makes slip-on sandals and other types of shoes. However, I, and many other physically challenged people, aren’t able to wear them due to a lack of support. When I think of Nike, I think of one of America’s most innovative and forward-thinking companies. Nike is always pushing the limits, making their shoes lighter, faster and stronger by using new materials, new designs and new technologies ... If Nike would design and produce basketball and running shoes with moderate support and some kind of closure system that can be used by everyone, Nike could create a shoe line that attracts people that face the same physical challenges I did and still do yet.”
He also quoted Bill Bowerman, the famed track and field coach who co-founded Nike. “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
“I believe everyone, no matter what their physical, economic or social circumstances may be, deserves to call themselves an athlete and deserves to have a sense of freedom and independence,” Walzer wrote.
Nearly a decade later, the letter still makes Walzer emotional — and proud, given all the innovation that’s come as a result of him sending it.
“It’s unbelievable what one letter has done for the shoe industry and for people with disabilities,” he says.
After his letter went viral and Nike got in touch, Walzer spent years offering input to Nike designer Tobie Hatfield. He remembers one style, which featured a zipper and velcro strap, Hatfield sent to him to try shortly after he turned 17.
“I put my own shoes on independently for the first time in my life,” he says of the moment. The Nike prototypes also enabled him to achieve his dream of going away to college without having to rely on his parents when getting dressed; he says his freshman orientation at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla. marked his first night being on his own.
“Because of Nike, I was able to go to college, living on my own,” he tells Yahoo Life.
Since the launch of the FlyEase line inspired by his letter, Walzer has met with fellow Nike muse LeBron James and spoken at the Obama White House. He’s now a disability advocate based in Florida, a role in which he continues to champion accessibility and inclusivity.
“What people who don’t have disabilities may not realize is that we as the disabled population have always, at least from my perspective, had to adapt to society ... but to continue to see real change, the world needs to start adapting to us and focus on [understanding] what our needs are as a disabled community,” he says.
“[People need to start] being open with us and saying, ‘Hey, what do you need? How can we help you?’ instead of kind of making us feel like a burden,” Walzer adds.
That means making “more accessible products,” yes, but also introducing policies that “are written and designed and voted on with people with disabilities in mind.” He points to the red tape and discouragement he encountered when he went to get his driver’s license after going through vision tests and getting various certifications; in the end, he got a “perfect score” on his driving test.
“As a grown man, it makes me so upset and angry inside how ignorant the world can be,” he says of being infantilized because of his disability. “And so I really want people to look at my story and, and really take some time and read about myself and other people with disabilities and [see] what people with disabilities are capable of.”
He hopes that the FlyEase shoes will help “bring down more barriers for people with physical challenges.”
“Ultimately what we want is something that looks to the naked eye like every other shoe out there,” he says. “We're in society every day. And some people might feel self-conscious about being in a wheelchair, having canes or using a walker ... so we don't need one more thing to worry about. So to have shoes and clothing that makes us feel cool and confident, and have some swagger to us, that means everything.”
—Video produced by Jenny Miller
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