Although it may not have made the primetime news hour or appeared on your Facebook feed, the disabled community celebrated a monumental moment last month. On July 16th, Nike released the first, major label, athletic shoes designed specifically to help physically disabled people. The shoes are fitted with a hidden zipper that allows individuals with limited motor function and sensitive feet to easily get the shoes on and off, while still maintaining the look and function of a typical Nike. For the initial release, this adaptive shoe design, named “Flyease,” was fitted to the Zoom Soldier 8 athletic shoe, which is endorsed and designed by LeBron James. This huge step forward in fashion for the disabled community, which was a more than three year effort between Nike, LeBron James, and the disabled young man that got the whole project started, is much more than just a piece of stylish footwear though. It provides yet another way to give those with physical disabilities the ability to live the independent, “normal” lives that we are working to achieve. This breakthrough has already had a large impact on my life, not only because I am a big “sneakerhead,” but because it gave me back a piece of my world, and reminded me of an important lesson along the way.
Several years ago, a young man with cerebral palsy (and a diehard Nike fan, like myself), Matthew Walzer, wrote a letter to Nike CEO, Mark Parker, that took the internet by storm. Walzer was going to be heading off to college soon, and despite his disability he was able to do most everything necessary to live on his own in a college setting, except putting on and tying his shoes. This meant that either he would have to wear ugly, adaptive, orthopedic shoes (something no self-respecting shoe enthusiast would ever do) or have an attendant help him put his shoes on every morning (something no disabled person, especially a teenager, wants). Thanks to social media this letter eventually made it to the desk of Parker, who not only took it to heart, but decided to put one of his top designers, Tobie Hatfield, in charge of the project. From that point on for the next three years, Hatfield, Walzer, and numerous other individuals, worked diligently to turn Walzer’s dream into a reality. The short video below gives more of the details behind how a young man with cerebral palsy, an NBA superstar, and the world’s biggest shoe company, helped the entire disabled community take a huge step forward, and I encourage you to watch it, as it does a much better job of telling this story than I ever could.
While I do my best to look good (and I think I do a damn good job), I will be the first to admit that I am not what you would call “fashionable.” I can put together an outfit and make sure my shirt and pants match and such, but beyond that I am pretty clueless in terms of style, with one exception. I have this enormous infatuation with shoes, and specifically athletic shoes. There are few things better than getting a new pair of Jordan’s, lacing them up, and rocking them all day. When I go out with friends or on a date, I usually pick out the shoes I want to wear first, and then find an outfit that will match (instead of the other way around). In satisfying my desire for great shoes, I have accumulated quite the collection of footwear over the years, and while I do not know the exact number of pairs I own, I do know that I have to use three different closets to store them all. As strange as it may be for someone who has never taken a step in his entire life, I just love shoes. It is this great appreciation for fly, fabulous footwear that has made the last couple years somewhat difficult for me, as I have no longer been able to wear any of my beautiful shoes.
About two years ago, I had a three month stretch filled with health issues. I was in and out of the hospital, had to have three weeks of IV antibiotics at home, and even had my mom come out for about two weeks to help my nurses with all of the additional care I needed. In short, it was a scary, hellacious time, but thankfully I had the strength and determination to get through it. As happens whenever I get sick and spend an extended length of time in the hospital though, my body got weaker during this period as a result of not being active and doing the things I usually do. One of the ramifications of my body’s deterioration from this less-active lifestyle was that my feet and ankles were no longer strong enough to easily put on shoes. Since I was always either in the hospital or at home recuperating during this time, I went quite a while without wearing shoes of any kind, so the muscles around my ankles got weaker. Just like so many things in life, when it comes to bodies suffering from SMA, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” I could still get certain pairs of sneakers on with enough effort, but it was a difficult, painful process, and I was risking a broken bone in my ankles every time I forced them on. As much as I love my kicks, I simply could not justify risking bodily injury in the name of shoes, so I have not worn them much at all since this time.
No longer being able to wear any of my shoes was tough for me. Of course, there were the natural feelings of loss from having something I really enjoy taken away from me, but as hard as it was to watch my magnificent collection of footwear collect dust for two years, another less obvious aspect of losing this part of my life was much more difficult to deal with. Losing this piece of my world had an enormous impact on my self-image. Especially early on after not being able to wear any footwear, I felt almost naked when I would go out in public without shoes on. It felt so weird to be dressed nicely with a button down shirt, nice pants, some pricey cologne, and…socks. It just did not feel right. It was one more thing about me that was different from the norm, one more thing that accentuated my disability. Even though I was well aware that missing shoes are pretty minor compared to being in a power wheelchair and having a plastic tube sticking out of my throat, this subtle change in my appearance was still a big deal to me. I was sure that people would see me as “more disabled” and judge me differently as a result of not wearing shoes and looking less like everyone else. I thought that people would look at me and think, “Oh, look at that poor, crippled boy. He can’t even wear shoes, but he tries so hard to look handsome.” These types of judgments are the exact opposite of everything I stand for as a disabled person, so they made a huge impact on me. For quite some time, I would only go out if I had to (like for a doctor’s appointment or a Roll Models talk), or I would put myself through the painful, risky process of putting on a pair of shoes before leaving my apartment. It took the better part of a year before I started to feel at all comfortable going out in public without shoes, and even today I am not completely at ease with it. After a lot of time spent examining these feelings of insecurity though, I eventually remembered a memory of my father, and this moment of clarity helped me put things in perspective and get over most of my self-image issues.
When I was a teenager, my dad, who was a teacher at my high school, conducted a social experiment. He felt that people, especially the adolescents that filled his classroom everyday, were far too concerned with their clothes and how they looked. He was not saying that you should dress like a slob, and anyone that knows my father will tell you that he is always “put together,” but just that you should not be spending hundreds of dollars on outfits and getting your hair done every week. He was convinced that as long as you look at least close to “normal,” that others will not even pay attention to what you wear or how you do your hair. To test his theory, he decided to wear the exact same outfit, black shoes, blue pants, black belt, and a white shirt, to school every day until someone noticed (even my siblings and I did not notice until he told us). I do not remember the final count, but I know that he made it well over 50 days without anyone saying anything. That is nearly an entire school semester of wearing the same outfit (he had several sets) without a single staff member or student taking notice. This outcome, in addition to proving my dad’s point, taught me an important lesson. It showed me how your appearance matters a lot more to you, than it does to anyone else. This means that as long as you feel comfortable with how you look, then what everyone else sees does not really matter, because they are not paying that much attention anyway. This subtle change in how you think about your appearance may not seem like much, and it really did not resonate strongly with me either for several years, but it turns out that this shift in your perspective can have a large impact on your life.
When I first lost my ability to wear shoes, it was a little surprising to me that something as trivial and vane as wearing shoes could have such a huge influence on your confidence, but whether you like it or not, how you look and what you wear does play a large role in how you see yourself. After I first recognized this fact, I was a little disgusted with myself for being so vane and letting something like shoes have so much control over my life, and then I remembered this story about my father’s fashion experiment. Once I took the time to really examine my feelings, I realized that we all want to feel good about the way we look, and this is ok, as long as you feel this way for the right reasons. If you are trying to look a certain way to feel comfortable and confident in your own skin or make a point, that is a good thing since it will bring you happiness, make you feel more confident, and help you achieve your goals. It is when you start trying to look a certain way for others, that these thoughts become a problem. These types of feelings will only ever bring you unhappiness, because you can never be the perfect image of someone, so you will always be trying to look “better.” Furthermore, when it comes down to it, the only person’s opinion of your appearance that matters is your own (and maybe your mother’s, because your mother’s opinion always matters).
As I said before, this may seem like mere semantics, and it is a very fine line between confidence and vanity, but this minor shift in your frame of reference makes a major impact on your life and happiness. It was only after I fully came to understand this idea that I was able to overcome my own feelings of insecurity about not wearing shoes. I stopped worrying about what other people would see when they looked at me, and started focusing on what I saw when I looked at myself. With or without shoes, when I saw myself in the mirror, I saw the same smart, charming, sexy guy that wants nothing more than to share his story and make people happy. I finally realized that other people would not notice or even remember whether I had shoes on 15 minutes after meeting me. Once I accepted these notions the majority of my feelings of self-doubt about my appearance disappeared. I still feel some sense of awkwardness when I go out without shoes on, but these feelings are no longer a result of how I think others will see me, but how I see myself, since I do still love shoes. Strapping on a pair of “Air Force Ones” and building a killer outfit around them makes me feel good, which is something I will always miss (maybe not thanks to Nike), and that is ok. Because while I may never feel completely at ease without my footwear, at least I know that I am trying to look good for the right reasons, for me.
The release of the Nike “Flyease” is a big moment for the disabled community. It is going to give individuals, like Matthew Walzer and myself, the opportunity to continue to enjoy and express our love for stylish footwear despite our physical limitations. While this alone is a huge achievement worthy of praise, what Nike has done with this shoe is much bigger than fashion and footwear. These shoes are going to help thousands of people with disabilities regain their confidence and sense of self, or perhaps give it to them for the first time. In a similar way that “Locks of Love” provides wigs to sick children so that they can go out in the world feeling good about the way they look, Nike is giving countless individuals another way to combat the mental and emotional aspects of having a disability. I cannot tell you how great it felt when I put on my “Zoom Soldier 8 Flyease.” It was a feeling I will never forget, and I could literally feel the stress that comes over me from not wearing shoes just evaporate the first time I put them on without pain. It is this emotional impact that is so monumental and will change people’s lives. I am so thankful that Nike was willing to take a chance and create a shoe for those who are “different,” and I am excited to see how this adaptive fashion grows now that the ice has been broken. Whatever comes next, I can guarantee, being the diehard “sneakerhead” that I am, that I will be first in line to buy it.
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