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Nike Accused Of 'Using Disability' To Hype New Hands-Free Sneaker

The GO FlyEase, Nike's first hands-free shoe, hinges open and closed, so the wearer just needs to slip their foot in and push down in order to put it on.
The GO FlyEase, Nike's first hands-free shoe, hinges open and closed, so the wearer just needs to slip their foot in and push down in order to put it on.

Cooper Lewis wears his Nike FlyEase sneakers, which are designed to be quick and easy to get into, every day.

"They're really the only pair that I have that actually fit and stay on my feet," says the 31-year-old from Akron, Ohio, who is recovering from a stroke and has limited mobility.

There are many slip-on shoes on the market, but the FlyEase line is designed with both fashion and the needs of people with disabilities in mind.

So Lewis was really looking forward to the latest in the product line, the GO FlyEase, Nike's first completely hands-free shoe. Rather than using straps or laces, it simply hinges open and closed, so the wearer just needs to slip their foot in and push down.

The shoe is scheduled for a limited release on April 30. Nike refused to say how many will be made available.

Lewis and his husband, Gabriel Riazi, are concerned that Nike's hype around the shoe, combined with its marketing to people without disabilities, will make it impossible for them to get hold of a pair when it comes out.

"They're using disability to sell to the masses while not giving those with disability the first access," Riazi says, echoing criticism that the company is exploiting inspirational stories of people with disabilities to sell a shoe that many of them won't be able to afford.

Nike is planning on making the $120 sneaker available to everyone eventually, and says it will schedule another drop later this year.

"We know that this is a shoe that everybody wants, but has a huge impact as well," says Sarah Reinertsen, a designer on the FlyEase Innovation team at Nike. "So we're scaling and we just also ask for everybody's patience as we continue to pick up our pace."

Reinertsen, who is also an athlete with a prosthetic leg, had to wear special medical shoes for years, which she says made her feel othered.

"I was really tired of being told those are the shoes that are for you because you have a disability, so I think we've been very deliberate in that we might be designing for people with disabilities, but this shoe is for everybody," she says.

Cooper Lewis (left) and his husband Gabriel Riazi.
/ Cooper Lewis and Gabriel Riazi
Cooper Lewis and Gabriel Riazi
Cooper Lewis (left) and his husband Gabriel Riazi.

Stephanie Thomas, who has a disability and is founder of the disability fashion website Cur8able, understands the frustration that Lewis and his husband have with Nike's marketing strategy. However, she thinks the shoe's popularity will help normalize accessible fashion.

"We need everyone to buy into this so we can have more options," she says.

Thomas has three criteria for disability fashion: Is it accessible to wear? Is it medically safe? And is it fashionable? She believes the GO FlyEase will fulfill that criteria for a lot of people.

She says that if the shoes sell out quickly, Nike will want to make more.

"And that'll make Adidas, that'll make Puma, that'll make everybody be like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let me get in on this. There is an actual market here,' " she says.

Thomas says the fashion industry needs to start looking at people with disabilities as viable fashion customers, and treat them as fashion customers.

Still, Lewis feels that people with disabilities should be prioritized for products like the GO FlyEase that are designed with them in mind.

"I think it's important for people with disabilities to have first access to the shoe, because we already have it hard enough," he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eva Tesfaye is a 2020 Kroc Fellow. She started in October 2020 and will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR.
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