Several years ago, when I read that high-school junior Matthew Walzer asked Nike to make athletic shoes for people with disabilities and the company designed a pair for him, I cheered. (Like my son, Max, Matthew has cerebral palsy, and only has flexibility in one hand.)
Nike has created the LeBron Soldier 8 FLYEASE, an easy-access shoe for athletes of all abilities and ages, inspired by Matthew’s letter — and I’m giving them a standing ovation because This. Is. Major. It’s hard enough for kids with disabilities to fit in with their peers, and wearing clunky orthotic shoes doesn’t do their image any favors.
I love that this all started with one teen. As Matthew, now a sophomore at Florida Golf Coast University, wrote in his 2012 letter to Nike:
“My dream is to go to the college of my choice without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day…. At 16 years old, I am able to completely dress myself, but my parents still have to tie my shoes. As a teenager who is striving to become totally self-sufficient, I find this extremely frustration and, at times, embarrassing.”
From there, Nike shoe designer Tobie Hatfield worked with Matthew — treating him like an equal — to develop a prototype for him to wear. He then spent three years tweaking that model to create the FLYEASE, making sure it was as easy and comfortable to wear as it was stylish.
The super-supportive shoe (on sale July 16) has a wrap-around zipper that opens near the heel, so it’s easy to slide a foot in and out. It comes pre-secured, no lacing up necessary.
Nike’s creation is part of a growing trend of companies making clothing and gear that benefit kids with special needs. Karen Bowersox launched Downs Designs after seeing the challenges her granddaughter with Down syndrome had fitting into clothes. Lauren Thierry, mom to a son with autism, created Independence Day Clothing, which offers clothing that can be worn front, backward, and inside out (to promote independent dressing) along with pieces that have GPS trackers, since some autistic individuals are prone to wandering. And mom Mindy Scheier — who has a son with muscular dystrophy — founded Runway of Dreams, a non-profit that’s working with mainstream apparel companies to optimize clothes for kids with disabilities.
Leg braces are getting a style makeover, too. Although many come in patterns, there are none quite like the pair 8-year-old Hope Laliberte has. At her request, a local tattoo artist in Falls River, Massachusetts, made ones featuring images of Disney villains Ursula and Cruella de Vil.
Nike is sending FLYEASE Zoom Soldier 8’s to two U.S. basketball teams participating in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles later this month.
I can’t wait to get my hands on a pair for Max as soon as they become available for kids. Because not only will they provide good support, they’re going to look cool.