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What Nike’s First Hands-Free Shoe Means for the Disability Community

Nike new hands-free shoe.

Courtesy of Nike

Key Takeaways

  • Nike released their Go FlyEase shoes, the brand’s first pair of lace-less sneakers that can be taken on and off without using one’s hands.
  • Clothing that is designed with a universal and inclusive approach can appeal to a wider consumer base but also be accessible for the disability community.
  • Adaptive clothing has traditionally been designed only for functionality, rather than being both functional and fashionable. 

On February 15, Nike began selling their Go FlyEase shoes, the brand’s first pair of lace-less sneakers that can be taken on and off without using one’s hands.

The GoFlyease shoes are nearly a decade in the making, stemming from a letter that Matthew Walzer, who has cerebral palsy, sent to Nike in 2012. Walzer told NPR that in the letter, he wrote, “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.”

The GoFlyease shoes are available for $120 for subscribers of the free membership program on Nike's website. 

Nike is one of the latest brands venturing into adaptive fashion—clothing specifically designed for people with disabilities who face challenges dressing or may have sensory issues that cause sensitivity to certain materials. Tommy Hilfiger and Vans are among some of the other major brands entering this fashion space.

“What [adaptive fashion] does is also provide a sense of comfort, dignity, and self-expression for people with disabilities,” Grace Jun, MFA, assistant professor of fashion at Parsons School of Design and CEO at Open Style Lab (OSL), tells Verywell. 

What This Means For You

Nike's new hands-free shoe may be a good option for anyone who faces challenges putting on their shoes independently. Their universal and inclusive design is meant to have a wide appeal.

Why Are These Shoes Important?

Putting on, wearing, and removing shoes can be a challenge for some members of the disability community. This is where adaptive fashion comes in. For example, a 2019 study found that custom-fitted footwear may increase physical activity in children and adults with Down syndrome.

Nike’s Go FlyEase shoes are fashionable and colorful, a welcome break from the norm for adaptive fashion. “They’ve had a very utilitarian or even medical-focused type of apparel that was purely functional to provide the ease of putting a garment on and off,” Kerri McBee-Black, PhD, an assistant teaching professor in the department of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri–Columbia, tells Verywell. 

Runway of Dreams Foundation founder and fashion designer, Mindy Scheier, BS, helped develop Tommy Hilfiger’s first adaptive clothing line for kids. "To have such a global brand get involved in the adaptive space really sets a precedent for other brands to say ‘Well Nike is doing that. We should be doing that too," Scheier tells Verywell.

Jun stresses that designers should consider how other functional and aesthetic products could help disabled people as well. “For example, there could be a lot of people on the autism spectrum who need a lot of compression garments,” she says. “Compression garments aren’t only for athletes and scuba divers, it could be for someone who has a sensory disability. 

What Universal and Inclusive Design Means

While Nike’s Go FlyEase shoes are considered to be adaptive fashion, it is not specifically targeted at the disability community. For example, in Nike’s press release for the new shoes, the words "disability,” “disabilities,” or “disabled,” are not mentioned, and "adaptive" is only included once. This is in part because the shoe is universally and inclusively designed, according to Jun.

“It’s made for more people, and as many people as possible,” Jun says. “We’re not labeling it as only for people with disabilities. They’ve made it into a way where anybody who may want to find easier dressing would be able to wear this shoe.”

McBee-Black points out some of the ways the new sneakers can be universally helpful. “The designers working on the shoes were talking about how most consumers when they walk to their home at the end of the day, they use their other foot to push the back of the heel of their shoe off,” she says. 

One of the goals of universal design is to improve accessibility for everyone, including the disability community. There have been criticisms, however, about Nike’s decision to not market their adaptive shoe as a disability product.

McBee-Black says there is still some debate among the disability community and disability scholars on how accessible inclusive products should be labeled. “There shouldn't have to be a segment of categories for that if you truly embrace inclusive design,” McBee-Black says. 

Adaptive Clothing and the Workplace

A 2018 paper published in the journal Societies suggests that having appropriate adaptive fashion options may increase the participation of disabled people in the workforce. Research has previously found that stigma can play a role in the hiring of disabled people, and how they are treated in the workplace.

The study found that people use appropriate adaptive clothing options for two different reasons. First, some participants want to use accessible clothing in order to fit in. Second, some participants use the clothing to build their confidence. All of the participants also reported they were unable to find appropriate clothing for work.

The paper’s lead author, McBee-Black, says that the need for different clothing in a work setting is, of course, not unique to the disability community. “If you have a job interview, you have to present yourself in a way that is representative of the job you’re seeking,” she says. “If you’re someone with a disability, you’ve not had that option because there have not been any options out there.”

The paper suggests that a lack of adaptive clothing plays a large role in disabled people's access to work, rather than a person’s disability.

“The social model of disability basically is that being disabled is not what prevents you from being able to fully participate in society, it’s society that prevents us from being able to fully participate,” McBee-Black says. “I would argue that there are many more things that we could include into those social and societal barrier access points for the disability population.”

Disability and Poverty 

While adaptive fashion is important for the disability community, options like Nike’s FlyEase shoes may not be financially accessible for all. According to data collected by the 2018 American Community Survey, around 26% of people with disabilities between the ages of 21 and 64 live below the federal poverty line.

“Given this reality, most people with disabilities qualify for Medicaid, Medicare, or both or have another public source of coverage,” Susan Dooha, JD, executive director for the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), tells Verywell. “Such health coverage programs do not often pay for new or complex technologies that are costly even if they would reduce other costs.”

Research also suggests that disabled people are likely to earn less than their non-disabled counterparts. A 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research found that the U.S. economy would have received an additional $141 billion in 2011 if people with disabilities were paid as much as non-disabled people for the same professions.

The disability community has also been especially affected by unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dooha. “People with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be working in sectors of the economy that have been hard hit by the pandemic,” she says. “The unemployment rate of people with disabilities is more than twice the unemployment rate for people with no disability.”

Disabled people may qualify for Supplemental Security Income payments, but those who qualify as of January 2021 would only earn $794 per month for an eligible individual or $1,191 per month for an eligible couple. Dooha says that this amount does not lift people with disabilities out of poverty, and “it can take years to qualify for Social Security Disability and individuals making their first application are often turned down initially, winning their benefits on appeal.”

Even with programs put in place that are supposed to help people that are low-income, costs for adaptive clothing and other necessities are still often out of reach for the disability community. “Cost is a very substantial barrier for people with disabilities who often do not have enough resources to pay for food, out-of-pocket health costs, housing or other basics,” Dooha says.

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6 Sources
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