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Man With Cerebral Palsy On Inspiring Nike's New Hands-Free Shoe

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally, Nike unveiled a new sneaker design last week, but these are not named for some superstar or even up-and-coming athlete. No, these are called the Go FlyEase. And they are the company's first hands-free sneaker. That means no laces to tie, no Velcro to strap, no zippers necessary. It's the latest model of a Nike line made with accessibility in mind, so people living with disabilities or who just have trouble tying and untying shoes can also have a cool, supportive sneaker for everyday wear.

And that line exists in part because of Matthew Walzer. He is living with cerebral palsy, and that affects some of his motor skills. Back in 2012, when he was just 16, Walzer wrote a letter to the company asking them to make shoes that he and others like him could wear. Walzer collaborated on the early models of FlyEase, and he is with us now to tell us more. Hello.

MATTHEW WALZER: Hello, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm good. Well, congratulations, sir. It's not every day I get to meet the inspiration for a Nike shoe, so let me just drink it in for a minute here (laughter). So we'll get to the design in a minute. But I was just wondering if you could take us back to 2012, when you first wrote that letter. I mean, would you mind just reading a bit for me? I particularly liked the couple sentences that began with, out of all the challenges I've overcome in my life.

WALZER: Sure. (Reading) Out of all the challenges I have overcome in my life, there's one that I'm still trying to master - tying my shoes. Cerebral palsy stiffens the muscles in the body. As a result, I have flexibility in only one of my hands, which makes it impossible for me to tie my shoes. My dream is to go to the college of my choice without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day.

MARTIN: And you go on to describe, you know, that you're a great student, that you have most mobility, that - you know, you - obviously your speech is not impaired. You can do all the things. But, hey, you know, you're thinking about going to college and not being able to tie your shoes. What gave you the idea to write the letter? Did you think that they would see it, that the Nike folks would see it?

WALZER: You know, I want to take you back a bit, if I can, to the beginning of my life. I was born two months premature and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, CP, at birth. And I had overcome a lot to even get to the point to where I could feasibly know in the back of my mind that I could go away to college and that the only thing that was stopping me at the time was, you know, not being able to tie my shoes.

I have full dexterity in my left hand and very limited in my right. At the time, there was obviously nothing out there like there is now with the various options of FlyEase. And I didn't want to have to worry about who was coming to put on my shoes every day. And so I wrote this letter not only for myself, but also for the millions of other disabled people out there that can't put on their shoes for one reason or another. And I honestly wasn't expecting Nike to respond. I mean, it's hard to - as a 16-year-old to have that as my expectation. But I knew I had to make my voice heard and let Nike know that there is a need out there for a product like this.

MARTIN: So say more about why you wanted an athletic shoe because, you know, part of inclusivity, obviously is wanting to participate in things that everybody else can participate in. So you have every right to want, you know, a cool shoe, you know, like everybody else, and not necessarily to wear, you know, what my kids would call teacher shoes.

WALZER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But is there another reason you didn't just want to be limited to slip-ons or sort of penny loafers or something like that?

WALZER: Sure. So with CP and, you know, various physical disabilities, you need a supportive shoe to assist with walking. And, you know, there are slip-ons and sandals, but those don't offer the support that someone like myself with cerebral palsy needs. And at the same time, you want something that looks just as good as it functions. And so that's why I, without question, wanted a basketball and a running shoe with a closure system that can be used by everybody.

MARTIN: So talk a little bit about - like, when you first saw them, do you remember what you thought?

WALZER: You're talking about the FlyEase Go?

MARTIN: The new ones, yeah, when they unveiled the first hands-free just a few days ago.

WALZER: Yeah. I saw them on Monday on social media. And once I saw the video of how they function, it's - you know, it's absolutely incredible. They have that kickstand system where the shoe kind of does all the work for you once you start to put your foot into it. And it's great for people that have little to no dexterity in their hands or have no hands at all for one reason or another.

When Nike's designing a shoe like this, it doesn't mean that everybody can't not wear them, right? You could wear them. I could wear them. It doesn't matter. And the entire concept of universal design as a whole needs to be further explored not just in the shoe industry and in the fashion industry, but across all sectors. I'm talking transportation. I mean, when a person with a disability goes and buys a car - right? - they have to go and pick out that car off the showroom and then go take it out to a third party and get it modified. We can't go in and work with Toyota or Ford and say, you know, I want the disability, you know, package, per se, like you get the convenience package on a car. And so we could buy a car in April and get it in October - because that's what happened to me.

You know, there's so many disabled drivers on the road as there's ever been. Like, why is it so difficult to get a car? You know, easy for all is easy for everybody. And something as simple as, you know, opening the bags that cereal comes in, you know, inside the box and how difficult it can be for someone like myself with limited dexterity to get that bag open sometimes. It's, like, why isn't this just easier? Because I'm sure if it was, someone without a disability would appreciate that just as much.

MARTIN: So can I go back and ask you - you know, you wrote this letter. You were thinking ahead to college. You obviously went, and (laughter) you did really well. How did it go for you? I mean, did you ever get sneakers in time to - I mean, was there a design available that allowed you to do what you wanted to do, which is, you know, take care of yourself?

WALZER: Yes. I mean, the prototype phase kind of even goes back to when I was in high school. So in high school and then the first year and a half of college, I wore, you know, Nike prototypes to school and to class every day. And so, yeah, there was a design in time. And the college in itself, on a personal level, was a lot of growing up emotionally faster than I was ready for but also making sure I advocated for things that I needed at my university to be able to function in a safe and inclusive manner, whether it was my - things with my dorm or transportation.

And so it just goes back to advocating. And my goals for the future are to work across different companies, organizations and sectors to address so many different issues that are out there that, to be quite honest, are being just ignored or not addressed.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, Matthew, you know I have to ask, are the sneakers cool?

WALZER: You know, I haven't tried them yet. I don't have a pair yet. So from what I've seen online, they are. They do look extremely cool. And I'm very, very excited to try them.

MARTIN: That was Matthew Walzer. His letter to Nike back in 2012 helped inspire the company's FlyEase line of sneakers. The newest hands-free model will be available later this year.

Matthew Walzer, thank you so much for being with us. Keep us posted - will you? - on everything you're up to.

WALZER: I will, Michel. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIKES ON MY FEET")

MIKE MILLER: (Singing) Nikes on my feet keep my cypher complete. Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nikes. Nikes on my feet keep my cypher complete. Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nikes. Nike, Nike, Nikes. Nike, Nike, Nikes. Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nike, Nikes. Nikes on my feet... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.