For Emory University grad Maria Towne, living with Cerebral Palsy inspired her to find a fun, creative way of communicating with others who relate to her situation. Her heartwarming blog is simply titled "CP Shoes."
A year-and-a-half in, the blog is accompanied by other social media outlets and Maria is gaining recognition for finding a way to transform her frustration at wearing-through shoes so quickly, into something positive.
As is often the case with truth on the internet, sometimes the people that matter are actually listening, and CP Shoes has proven a great outlet not only for communicating with the disability community, but with distributors and manufacturers that hold the power to re-invent their shoes for the benefit of all kinds of people. There's no denying that no matter what your taste (or lack thereof) everyone should be able to look and feel as good (or bad) as they like... from head to toe.
Not Impossible Now: Tell us about getting CP Shoes started.
Maria: Growing up as someone with Cerebral Palsy, I consistently experience difficulty being able to wear the shoes that I wanted to wear. My options were really limited by wearing orthotics or braces, and just the way that my body and my feet move. I would also wear through my shoes really quickly.
I not only was wearing shoes that weren't made for me, but I'm wearing shoes that are made by companies that don't expect people like me to be buying them - people with a variety of gaits. I kind of accepted this, but I was also frustrated. A year-and-a-half ago I wore through a pair of $80 Earth shoes in one day. And, you know, Earth shoes soles are made out of recycled auto tires - these aren't some kind of flimsy shoe. I was so angry. I thought these shoes would last. They were wearable, I could get my foot into them, they were comfortable and I thought they would last at least a week!
Actually, my shortest amount of time for wearing-through a shoe is one evening. When President Obama was re-elected for the 2nd time, Disability Power & Pride held its inaugural ball and I wore a pair of really cute, gold, T-strap Mary Janes, and they lasted one evening on the dance floor with me - I tore them to shreds (and had a great time).
I decided it wasn't healthy for me to be carrying around all of this pent up, negative energy and I decided that it would be fun to use this creative outlet, where I could share pictures of my destroyed shoes and fashion commentary around them, and then I would Facebook and Tweet at manufacturers and distributors, and maybe I'd get a response back.
The reality is there are 56 million people in the United States with disabilities, and so many more people whose feet don't fit in what we think of as "normal" shoes for "normal" feet. Whether you have flat feet or wide feet or you have bunions, I just thought, "Why haven't we seen more innovation around shoes?" And let's see if I can make that happen. So, I started taking pictures of my destroyed shoes and I started getting submissions from other people with CP and other disabilities who had similar issues to me, and feedback from them and from people without disabilities who were celebrating what I was doing.
That's another of the other reasons I started this, to enlighten people on the cost of disability, and for them to think about the cost of assistance programs, or healthcare costs, or wheelchair costs... little things that impact everyday life. These costs adds up - I'm not buying very expensive shoes, but I'm spending $1300-$1500 a year on shoes because I have to buy so many pairs.
NIN: How many photos of shoes do you receive a day and how do you choose which photos / stories go up on the blog?
Maria: Everything goes up on the blog. I really think that getting dressed is a very intimate activity - the clothes, the shoes and the jewelry that you put on your body - it means something to you.
Think about getting up this morning, why you chose your outfit, why you chose your shoes and how you made that decision. Did you want to look a certain way? Did you want to feel a certain way? Did you want to think about a good time you had in that pair of shoes? Did you want to think about your Mom because you're wearing a piece of jewelry she gave you when you graduated from high school? These are things that are all connected to how we view ourselves and how we want other people to view us. We carry our histories with these things. People want to share that with me and I feel really, really honored.
Take the phrase, "You'll never know a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes," shoes provide a metaphor for how we understand human experience. If people want to share [their experience] with me, then I want to share it with the CP Shoes audience.
I would love more submissions, especially images of shoes, so we can then organize people around a brand of shoe or a particular company or a particular type of shoe, to make sure that designers of those shoes actually hear from this huge group of people that's out there, living their lives. I think that would be great.
NIN: How does it make you feel when others with a similar disability find solace in your blog?
Maria: One of the things I've come back to, pretty consistently, is that when people see me moving through this world that was not made for me - and they see me wobbling around with my spazzy gait - I know, based on my life experience, that one of the first things they think about is limitations. But, when I go through my life every day, what I'm really limited by are my shoes. My shoes cannot keep up with me! It's funny to think about, because I'm not an Olympian, I'm not an athlete, I'm not someone who runs - but my shoes can't keep up with me. And that's so true for so many other people. The humor is intentional. I'm really glad when people get the humor, I think that in order to sustain advocacy efforts, especially advocacy efforts initiated by frustrations, you need to have humor. It's going to get you to think about things a little bit differently. And that's totally the point.
NIN: We loved the shoes inspired by Frida Kahlo.
Maria: Thank you, that's one of my favorite blog posts. I'm honored and motivated by readers of my blog because, where I was growing up in Louisiana, I was one of the only types of people like me that I ever saw. While my friends were all very sympathetic to my shoe dilemma, and aware of the things that I faced - I didn't know anyone else who had this problem. I didn't know anyone who could understand the really acute fear when you're doing something like going to a dance, or it's your graduation, or you have a big presentation and you can't wear your favorite dress shoes because you're so worried that people are going to doubt your competency and your ability.
Now, I've got a big community of friends with disability with CP and without. I'm glad that they're out there and reading the blog and hope that they won't feel alone, that they'll feel like it's totally possible or will be possible to present themselves the way that they want. We've done all this work to make sure that people with disabilities are integrated in education and employment and community life - for me, when I talk about inclusion, what that means to me is inclusion in every single aspect of life. So, if in the morning, people can't get dressed or feel and embrace the whole person that they want to be, then we've still got work to do.
NIN: If you could enlighten the public on another aspect of living with CP, what would it be?
Maria: CP is an issue in how it manifests. Some people are very mildly affected in their hand or in their arm, then folks like me who are primarily affected in their feet and other people use powerchairs and might use tools and technology to aid them - it's a huge spectrum of individuals. A lot of us have spent a huge part of our lives, particularly childhood, in physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. We've been taught to push our bodies to be as "normal" as possible.
I've spent so much time learning how to walk and reprogramming my body to do something it doesn't want to do. Even though CP is marked as a childhood disability, CP doesn't go away - As an adult at 27, I'm experiencing a lot of joint pain and it's harder to keep up my endurance, so, I'm considering going back to using a cane, or going back to using a walker, or going back to using crutches.
I think there are other younger people with disabilities who may have thought about that and have grown up in an environment where using these tools is stigmatized. I just want to say that there's no shame in pushing against that stigma, and it comes from internalizing able-ism. The biggest thing is that we're out there and living our lives in the best way that works for us. Ultimately, if there's someone who is walking and it's not good for you to walk anymore - don't do it. And the fun thing about using a wheelcahir is that your shoes won't get ruined!
NIN: That's definitely a positive step. Are there other projects you're currently working on? What are your plans?
Maria: Well, I have a really cool job - I work for the Department of Labor at the Office of Disability and I specifically focus on youth, people ages 14-24. The way that we structure all of our policy discussions includes youth with disabilities. I love that so much because it's universal design through policy, and that's really what we need to be thinking about.
I'd love to see more young people with disability in apprenticeships. I'm also working with my alma mater, Emory University, to help support their new disability studies initiative. Disability Studies is not the study of disability but is, like, Women's Studies or African American Studies, it's the study of disability culture, disability in literature, and I think it's very exciting to see more and more of these programs emerge.
I've also been doing a lot of thinking around wearable tech and ways to reframe and expand that. When you think about wearable tech you think about integration with a computer and it provides an enhanced experience for the user. So, you'll have FitBit and GoogleGlass and Jawbone and, you know, shoes that will vacuum your floor, and other shoes that will vibrate to tell you whether you're going the right or wrong direction and providing this enhanced reality. I'm working on scholarships to expand that narrative and make it more inclusive.
NIN: What are some some examples of the best shoes for people with CP?
Maria: Because CP is so diverse, I think there can be a lot of "best shoes" for people with CP but that may not work for all people with CP. Some readers have suggested a particular kind of Nike, a lot of people like New Balance tennis shoes, I wear a lot of Converse.
Begrudgingly, I used to have to wear Converse all of the time because they were the only type of shoes that would fit around my orthotics and at least had some degree of fun - I could get them in pink or bright blue, I could get them in a pattern. I appreciated them for how accessible they are and I can wear them about 55 times before they're kaput; which is the longest I've been able to wear any shoe that wasn't a boot.
Boots have a little bit of a longer lifespan; they're also more expensive and heavier, which is an issue for me and my gait. I had a pair of Miss Mooz boots that worked really well for me but they are usually quite expensive. One of the things that really showcases a real need for action around this is that after almost a year and half of writing this blog and getting the questions of what shoes are working for people with CP, there's still not that many - if any - real options available. I think it would be awesome if there were shoes that expanded or shrank as you're foot swelled up or down - I've spoken to many people with the issue where they put their shoes on in the morning and by the end of the day they don't fit.
I do think there are fashion designers out there who are beginning to embrace disability more. One designer featured a model on a wheelchair last year, and this year at NY fashion week a runway featured a quadriplegic - so, I'm hoping that I'm not the only one and there are designers out there thinking about fashion and disability.
All photos provided courtesy of CP Shoes.