From writing an open letter to becoming a disability advocate
By Fred J. Maahs, Jr.
I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Walzer a few years ago when he was being honored with a Catalyst Award at the Annual Convention for The Arc. On that night, Matthew took the podium to be recognized for writing a letter to Nike. But really, it was so much more than that. You see, that night Matthew was being recognized for being a voice for the disability community and for changing a part of it forever.
I remember Matthew being very pleasant and polite, with a wide, contagious smile and a personality that people were drawn to. I know I was. And, thank goodness that hasn’t changed. Each time I speak with Matthew I learn something new and I realize all over again that this young man is going places and people will follow him. Mark my words!
So, what’s all the fuss about? Well, let me share a little bit about Matthew and then you can decide if you have the same reaction as I did, and still do.
Matthew Walzer was born in Boca Raton, FL. two months premature in October of 1995, and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy spastic diplegia at around a year old. His cerebral palsy affects his walking, balance, vision, and fine motor skills. He went to school at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU and studied Business Management with a concentration in sports. And, like many teenagers, college was definitely a struggle, especially when you must navigate a campus with a disability like cerebral palsy. It forces you to grow up quickly and to learn on the fly. There were things within housing and transportation that needed to be, and ultimately were, worked out.
Matthew wants everyone, especially those within higher education, to know that, “Attending college with a disability is not a one size fits all, and that accommodations must be made to suit the needs of each student for safety and accessibility purposes. Each student has their own unique needs and deserves an education and that should be accommodated and respected.” I couldn’t agree more, Matthew.
Outside of the classroom, Matthew was very active with sports, including riding his bike, and swimming in the pool. When he wasn’t in the action, you could find him watching or attending football, baseball, or NASCAR. Oh, and he loves a good action movie, “anything Spielberg, and yeah, I’m into Star Wars, too!”
They say with age comes experience and for Matthew, with age came experience and more independence. People are often taken aback as to how physically independent he is. Despite being legally blind in one eye, he can and does drive, and he uses a mobility scooter to get around as well. “A particularly funny, (or not so funny), thing that happens often is when I go out to eat at restaurants and people question how I got there and how I can even manage to eat food and order for myself.”
But what about this Nike thing? How did it launch Matthew’s position as a disability advocate?
In the summer of 2012, with college just around the corner and the goal of going away to school, Matthew wrote an open letter to Nike asking for shoes that everyone could put on, regardless of physical ability. The letter went viral (#NikeLetter) and what resulted was a three-year collaboration with Nike from 2012 to 2015.
“I would test and give feedback and insights on rear entry prototypes that Nike would send me and give my input on materials, fit, support, cushioning, and more,” say Matthew. What resulted was the first FlyEase shoe that was released in 2015, the Lebron Zoom Soldier 8 FlyEase. “The independence that these shoes gave me allowed me to achieve my dream of going away to college. I graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2018 with a Business Management degree with a concentration in sports.”
Matthew is either going to be a very good and honest politician, or leading a major disability advocacy organization one day. His enthusiasm and passion exudes when you ask him about it.
In Matthew’s own words,
“Writing that letter to Nike as a 16-year-old boy, and now looking back on it years later as a 25-year-old man, I am proud to be a voice for people with disabilities. Through my letter and collaboration with Nike, I am so proud that people’s lives have been forever changed, and now so many have freedom and independence that previously did not exist. I want people to view my letter as a source of hope and inspiration that anyone can make an impact. I have been fortunate enough to share my journey and continued desire to make the world more inclusive via various national multimedia platforms such as “The Drew Barrymore Show,” NPR, Spotify, and Yahoo. I have also been recognized for my advocacy and spoken at events for United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, The Arc, Runway of Dreams, Integrated Dreams Foundation, and CP Soccer. In 2016, I had the honor to speak on universal design and disability advocacy at the Obama White House for their Design For All Showcase. In late 2020, I spoke at a United Nations virtual Summit on the role of advancing sport for development and peace. My goal is to continue advocating for change for people with disabilities across various sectors, including education, technology, transportation, and government.”
You can just feel, no, you know that Matthew is going to build upon his already very broad foundation of advocacy and create even more change.
I asked Matthew if he gets free Nikes for life and if he has heard from Nike and he replied, “Not recently.”
He feels that the greatest challenges that people with disabilities face each day are being heard and seen and validated. According to Matthew, “people with disabilities are the most overlooked minority in the world.”
Matthew stays active every day and he’s even currently working on a book.
“The book details my life story up to this point and details the struggles and triumphs of living with cerebral palsy.”
He’s also the ambassador for people with disabilities for AwarenessTies, an online publication dedicated to making positive social impact.
Matthew is a force. A positive force. A force that will continue to evolve and make change for people with disabilities.
You can find out more about Matthew by going to his website at www.matthewwalzer.com