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Nike's quest to design the perfect sneakers for people with disabilities

A passion project goes mainstream.

On July 13, 2015, Nike introduced its first pair of sneakers with FlyEase, a technology designed to offer easy entry into a shoe through a system that replaced laces with a zipper and Velcro strap. The project was led by Tobie Hatfield (left), Director of Nike's Innovation Kitchen, whose work includes iconic models like the Nike Presto and Nike Free.

Hatfield said the idea for FlyEase, which at the time had been in the works for three years, was to create a product that would help people who couldn’t easily tie and untie their shoes. This interest was prompted after Nike received an email from Matthew Walzer (pictured with Hatfield), a teenager who suffered from Cerebral Palsy and asked the company to make a shoe that could solve his challenge of getting his feet in and out of shoes.

The result of Hatfield's work with Walzer was the Nike Zoom Soldier 8 FlyEase, a modified version of LeBron James' signature performance basketball sneaker.

“LeBron’s footwear provided the ankle support Matthew needed, but of course getting into and out of high-top shoes can present its own challenges, so we focused not just on replacing the lacing system but also creating an easier entry system for the foot.”

Tobie Hatfield, Director of Nike's Innovation Kitchen

2015

Since that year, Nike has introduced dozens of different styles featuring FlyEase. This is the 2017 LeBron Soldier 10.

One of the latest additions to Nike's accessibility-focused line is the AJ1 High FlyEase, a special edition of its legendary Air Jordan 1. It hit stores on November 1, 2019, and sold out within seconds.

The AJ1 is one of Nike's best-selling sneakers of all time, and this FlyEase model shows the brand's commitment to the tech.

Beyond FlyEase: In 2016, Nike reveals E.A.R.L (Electric Adaptable Reaction Lacing), a technology designed to power its first consumer self-lacing sneakers, the HyperAdapt 1.0.

E.A.R.L. has evolved into FitAdapt, an auto-lacing technology that can be controlled with a smartphone app. Nike brought this new iteration of its power laces to the Adapt BB basketball sneaker in 2019, followed by the Adapt Huarache, a futuristic, lifestyle take on a design from 1991. Both were priced at over $350 and, like the AJI High FlyEase, sold out instantly when they dropped.

THE ADAPT HUARACHE.

While Nike isn't touting FitAdapt as an accessibility feature, the self-lacing, app-controlled tech does have the potential to help people who struggle getting their sneakers on and off.

Nike says its focus now is to make even more FlyEase sneakers for runners, basketball players and kids. This is why the company is investing in Handsfree Labs, a Utah-based startup that's working on footwear tech that lets people step in and out of their shoes without using their hands.

“Our Nike FlyEase platform is aimed at providing greater access to sport for all athletes, and we believe Handsfree’s ‘easy on and off’ technology has the potential to broaden and enhance this effort by removing barriers to play and making sport easier for more people.”

Tom Clarke, Nike President of Innovation, said about the partnership.

The challenge for Nike now is to keep evolving FlyEase and FitAdapt, and ensuring that these technologies continue to be useful for people and don't become just gimmicks.

SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

And FlyEase is, indeed, progressing. As part of a major push into making its products more sustainable, later this year Nike will launch the "Space Hippie 3," a sneaker made out of recycled materials that features its simplified lacing system.

20+

The number of FlyEase styles Nike has created since 2015.

“FlyEase is a great example of listening to athletes, designing for specific needs, and then broadening that to where many people can enjoy those benefits.”

Tobie Hatfield told Input.

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