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  • FSACentral Staff

Grit, Will, and a Letter to Nike Result in Accessible Sneakers

A green thought bubble with the words "About Us" in blue text, followed by "Not without us" in smaller, pink text.

"About Us" is a series of interviews with accomplished self-advocates in Florida.

When people with disabilities use assistive technology or find a great article of adaptive apparel, how those implements came to be isn't normally at the forefront of their minds. But each device certainly has a story behind it.

Matthew Walzer was influential in the development of such a product and shares that story with us here. A South Florida native who currently lives in North Florida, Matthew works in digital marketing at Entrata, having formerly worked at Cause-Related Media as a digital strategist. He's also a FL SAND Fellow and quickly becoming a sought-after speaker.

Self-advocate Matthew Walzer appears in this photo. He is smiling, wearing glasses and a blue shirt with the NIKE Swoosh logo near his left shoulder.
Matthew Walzer

Question: When did you start to identify as a self-advocate and why?

Matthew: I have always been passionate about making sure people with disabilities are treated with the respect and dignity that we deserve, to show the world that we are capable of so much more than meets the eye. I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects my walking, balance, vision, and fine motor skills. My disability makes it impossible for me to tie my shoes, which when I was in high school, was the only obstacle standing in my way of going away to college.

I decided to write an open letter to Nike in 2012 at 16 years old asking for shoes that could be worn by anyone, regardless of physical ability.

The letter went viral on social media and sparked an outpouring of support from the disability community. The result was a three-year collaboration between myself and Nike from 2012 to 2015 that involved testing and giving feedback on prototypes of accessible footwear. The end result was the Nike Flyease line of footwear that launched in 2015.

Question: What advocacy related issue is the most significant to you?

Matthew: The most important advocacy issue to me is the lack of accessibility in our state universities. As a graduate of a four-year public university in Florida, the lack of accessibility in housing, transportation, and quite frankly, the entire campus, was appalling. Even when bringing these issues to the appropriate office at the university, things would fall on deaf ears. It was after escalating issues higher up the chain of command that I started to see change that benefited not just myself but all students with disabilities, present and future. The lack of accessibility was not just an issue at the university I attended, but other schools that I toured while making a decision on where to attend college. More attention needs to be given to the accessibility at all of our state universities to make sure students have what they need to be safe, comfortable, and successful.

Question: Describe a time when you had to overcome an obstacle related to your disability.

Matthew: My cerebral palsy not only affects me physically, but it affects my vision as well. I have been legally blind in my left eye since birth. This presented its own set of challenges while trying to get my learner's permit and driver's license. To get my permit, I had to take a field vision test, which took multiple attempts to pass. To obtain my driver’s license, my dad and I had to convince a driving instructor to get in the car with me, as my local DMV had never given a driving test to a person with a disability before, despite me waiting until I was 18 years old and had enough practice behind the wheel to take my driving test. Against all odds, I received a perfect score on my driving test and walked out of the DMV that day with my license.

Question: What did you find helpful in overcoming that obstacle?

Matthew: Grit, will, and determination. People doubting me gives me the fuel I need to achieve.

Question: How has your advocacy affected your career and personal life?

Matthew: I never thought that one letter and a call to action would not only change my life but the lives of so many others. There can be no change without speaking up. I am so proud to be the catalyst for accessible footwear and am grateful and humbled by the opportunities and experiences that I have had. To be able to speak at the White House, be recognized by numerous disability advocacy organizations across the globe, appear on “The Drew Barrymore Show,” and now more recently be in a position to help and give back to the disability community again through FL SAND. If you told me in 2012 that my life would change significantly from one letter, I would have called you crazy.

Question: What advice would you give to someone struggling to accept their disability?

Matthew: Be you, change for no one, and love who you are. We are all here for a reason and it’s so important to find your purpose and passion in life. Once you find it, use it to make the world around you better.

Question: In 10 years, what would you most like to see changed in the lives of people with disabilities?

Matthew: More equity and people with disabilities not being an afterthought. Design product and policy with people with disabilities in mind. We are the largest minority group in the world and more often than not we are left out of consideration.

The FSACentral staff would like to thank Matthew for taking the time to participate in the interview. Let us know what you think about "About Us" on Facebook. If you know an accomplished self-advocate in Florida you think we should showcase in "About Us," contact us here or via Facebook.


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