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

Mar 28, 2021
Originally published on March 29, 2021 1:20 pm

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

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.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A few weeks ago, we interviewed a man who pushed Nike to develop the FlyEase line. Those are sneakers with features to make them easier for people with limited mobility to wear. We talked about the newest product in the shoe line, the GO FlyEase, which is designed to be completely hands-free. But one couple wrote to us about their struggle to get the new shoe. NPR's Eva Tesfaye got in touch with them to talk about the accessible footwear.

GABRIEL RIAZI: It unzips there and then comes off.

EVA TESFAYE, BYLINE: Gabriel Riazi shows me over Zoom how his husband takes on and off his Nikes.

RIAZI: You can see that, like, the heel opens so that Cooper can slide his foot in and, with one hand, zip it closed around his foot.

TESFAYE: Cooper Lewis is recovering from a stroke and has limited mobility. He loves Nike's FlyEase line because he can get them on and off by himself. But he still needs to use his hands to close the strap.

COOPER LEWIS: And I have to have shoes on my feet before I get up out of bed.

TESFAYE: That's why he's looking forward to the GO FlyEase, Nike's first hands-free shoe. Riazi points out that his husband needs a lot of athletic gear as he regains his ability to walk.

RIAZI: Literally, our home is like a pilates table, walkers, exercise bands. Cooper lives the life of an athlete.

TESFAYE: Nike says the shoe was inspired by the needs of people with disabilities, so Lewis and Riazi thought it would be easy for them to get access to it. Instead, they had to sign up for Nike's membership and apps and wait for the first limited U.S. release, which is scheduled for April. The couple are huge Nike fans, but they say the company's marketing strategy is forcing them to compete with people who don't really need adaptive footwear.

RIAZI: They're using disability to sell to the masses while not giving those with disability the first access. And that's inappropriate, I think.

SARAH REINERTSEN: I actually have it opened in what we call the ready position or the open position.

TESFAYE: That's Sarah Reinertsen. She is a designer on the FlyEase Innovation Team at Nike.

REINERTSEN: And then when you step down on it - like, if I put my foot in there, and I step down - it would stay down as well. It's also stable in that go position.

TESFAYE: She's also an athlete with a prosthetic leg. She's had to wear a special medical shoes for years.

REINERTSEN: And I was really tired of being told, those are the shoes that are for you because you have a disability. So I think it's - you know, I've been - we've been very deliberate in that we might be designing for people with disabilities, but this shoe is for everybody.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: We need everybody to buy into this so that we can have more options.

TESFAYE: That's disability fashion stylist Stephanie Thomas. She understands the frustration that Lewis has with Nike's marketing strategy, but she thinks the shoe's popularity will help normalize accessible fashion.

THOMAS: That'll make Adidas, that'll make, you know, Puma, that'll make everybody, like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let me get in on this. There is an actual market here.

TESFAYE: She says that the fashion industry needs to start looking at people with disabilities as viable fashion customers, and the way to do that is to treat them like fashion customers. Still, Lewis feels that people with disabilities should have early access to products designed with them in mind.

LEWIS: I think it's important for people with disabilities to have first access to the shoe because we already have it hard enough.

TESFAYE: Eva Tesfaye, NPR News.

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