Images via Nike

by Pete Forester

Matthew Walzer was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects the way his nervous system interacts with his body. But despite his lack of complete motor function and markedly thick speech, he is fully functioning mentally. The disorder means that certain physical tasks are difficult or impossible for him, forcing him to ask for assistance, and his disability will never improve. 

While he was in high school, there were people in his life to help him, but his reliance on them robbed him of independent living. One of his biggest daily obstacles has been putting on and taking off his sneakers. Because of traditional lacing systems, Matt couldn’t lace his sneakers himself. So, he appealed to Nike for a sneaker that would allow him, and people like him, to take off and put on their sneakers without any help.

After working with designer Tobie Hatfield for years, the result is Flyease. The sneaker uses a combination of zipper and strap technology to effectively make the heel of the shoe removable so it can be put on and taken off with ease. 

In many ways, it was the most important video Nike has ever released.

"Before the creation of Flyease someone who is physically incapable of performing certain movements must watch as brands like Nike tell them to “Just Do It,” when they very well can’t."

In the video, while appealing to Nike for help, Matt references one of Nike’s favorite slogans: “If you have a body you’re an athlete.” The slogan is code. From a brand that puts all of its stock in athleticism, it means everyone is valuable. Everyone is a potential customer of the brand, and consumer of their culture. And on its face it is enabling. No matter the body that one has, they can focus, train, and Just Do It, overcoming whatever obstacles are in their way. The problem with that statement is that it’s just not true, at least not in the work that Nike was doing when Matt referenced the phrase. Nike isn’t the only one who wasn’t making shoes for people with cerebral palsy or similar disabilties. Brands’ avoidance of this niche market makes sense from a cold, macro standpoint: no one wants to outfit the disabled. Being that visible as a brand connected to a lack of ability, as opposed to the hyper ability of the best players, could potentially cast a pale across the identity of the brand and affect the sale of aspiration.

But when Matt employs this slogan to convince Nike to make shoes that will work for someone like him, he uses it to great effect, offering Nike the potential to make that slogan true, and it is Flyease that makes it true.

When LeBron James and Kevin Durant are testing their shoes, every component is considered to maximize play efficiency for them, and consumers catch the benefits of those upgrades. Almost no one will utilize them to their intended purpose beyond the signature player. Flyease, on the other hand, opens up a world of independence to a half million consumers who have been categorically ignored.

We've seen Nike make these reaches in the past. The Doernbecher collection is presented to us by designers who are in a place of physical weakness, and they are children whose design sense has not developed into sophistication. The designs are bold, brash, frequently garish, but we buy them for their meaning (and many for their resale value). It is a celebration of those at their weakest, but it is still aspirational. We are buying a piece of what is inspiring about them. We are buying a piece of their hope, the hope that their fight will heal them and they will go on. In the Doernbecher collection, Nike has distilled their spirit into designs. The Flyease does not market hope, it speaks directly to disability. This shoe, considered separately from its design, represents Nike’s admission that people can fail. And what a relief that they've finally done this.

Tobie Hatfield said, “At some point some people become less able sooner than others... But eventually we all become less able.” This is in direct contrast to the aspiration that Nike sells, and has been selling since they made their first shoe. The implication is that with these products you will get better. You can always get better. Everyone can get better. The problem is that this is false. We're human beings, living organisms, and after a certain point we begin to deteriorate. Our joints fail, our muscles weaken, our organs become less efficient. There comes a point where no matter how many pairs of LeBron's shoes you buy, they cannot help you anymore. And truly, for most people, they cannot help you at all. 

For a brand to only sell the aspirational element places a huge burden on people like Matt. Before the creation of Flyease someone who was physically incapable of performing certain movements had to watch as brands like Nike told them to “Just Do It,” when they very well couldn't. We’re all told to follow our wildest dreams, when some are just out of our grasps. It creates an echo chamber of expectation beyond ability, setting up for failure and eventual shame or disillusionment. Flyease instead makes room for what is not possible so as to permit more of what is. It is not mercy. It is respect. This is not separate but equal, this is equal opportunity. It's allowing those who already suffer in every day tasks to remove one small anxiety from their lives and focus on living them, rather than worry who will help them tie their shoes today. We are all worth a long, complicated life, filled with relationships and challenges. But no one should face the challenge of “How do I put on these shoes by myself?” Flyease’s admission of the limits of human capacity is not an admission of weakness. It is not a gesture of pity. It is a relief.

"There comes a point where no matter how many pairs of LeBron's shoes you buy, they cannot help you anymore."

What Nike has done is shirk its own traditional avenue of hyper politically correct aspirationalism to provide a service. There is an inherent admission with the creation of this technology: Matt will never be able to play basketball like LeBron James (or even most anyone else) because to pretend otherwise does a disservice to him, and to all of us. Matt is different. His handicap, if not provided for, burdens him with an incredible hindrance on his ability to be the steward of his own life. It robs him of his individuality and would sap him of his identity. But we are all different, and we each live with our limits. If we don’t have them already, we will later in life. And the sooner we accept that and not fear what our lives will look like then, the sooner we can face the future without apprehension.

Nike is dealing directly with failure. This is a failure that cannot be overcome. Cerebral palsy will not be solved by the right Hyperfuse panels or strategically placed Flywires. If Matt gets better it will be for advances in the neurological sciences, not in athletic wear. Nike has finally found itself at the foot of a mountain it cannot peak. So they are reaching behind and giving their friend a leg up. It is an admission of disability. That humans fail, and some of those failures cannot be overcome. Rather than Just Do It, or just being it, rather than training harder or pushing through, some require the relief from platitudes and to be offered something else. Sometimes we cannot Just Do It. There are things we will never do no matter how hard we want to. But we can suffer a little less.