For Billy Price, the shoe now fits
By Louise Kinross
In 1996, Billy Price was a freshman at the University of Washington when he fell out of a third-story fraternity window and broke his neck.
Today, he’s the co-founder of Seattle-based BILLY Footwear, a company that evolved out of his desire to find a stylish shoe he could put on himself. Because Billy is paralyzed from the chest down, and has minimal use of his fingers, he needs a shoe he can drop his foot into. BILLY shoes have zippers that run along the side of the shoes and around the toe, allowing you to open and completely fold over the upper part of the shoe. They’re available in high-tops, boat shoes and boots at Nordstrom, Zappos, Macy’s and Amazon. We spoke about Billy’s rehab and the life he lives today.
BLOOM: What is a BILLY shoe?
Billy Price: All shoes on the market require you to step your foot into them, whether they’re a slip-on or Velcro or with laces. We tried to change the game by making a shoe that’s unobstructed. Where our brand is unique is that you can unzip it, and drop your foot in.
BLOOM: How did you come up with the idea?
Billy Price: I’m in a wheelchair. When I was a college freshman I fell from a three-story window, and when that happened my world changed. A lot of things I used to do, like putting on my shoes, I couldn’t do. There wasn’t anything on the market that allowed me to put on my shoes myself, and I didn’t want to wear stuff that looked really medical, and different from everyone else.
There were shoes that had zippers on them, but the zipper was on the back or the side, and in every case you still needed to shove your foot into the shoe. Our shoe allows you to fold the whole upper over and that’s what I needed.
BLOOM: What do kids and adults with disabilities tell you they like about the shoes?
Billy Price: First off, when we entered the market, we didn’t want to make an adaptive shoe. We wanted to make a mainstream shoe that anyone could wear that would sit on the shelves alongside Nike shoes and Vans. We wanted something fashionable and stylish that anyone could wear. But on the functional side, it had to be convenient and easy, so someone with limited hand dexterity could be empowered to put it on. Or if you had a paralyzed foot, you could drop your foot into it in an unobstructed way.
When we receive feedback, it’s from two main audiences.
One is the audience that doesn’t need the function, but loves the function: the parent who just wants their kid to get up and get out faster in the morning. The other side of the fence are folks that have never been able to put their shoes on and now they can, because it’s very easy to get in and out of our shoe.
BLOOM: How is your shoe different from others that have zippers? I know Nike has a shoe with a zipper.
Billy Price: That’s the Flyease, with a zipper around the back. It opens in the back, but you still need to shove your foot into it.
BLOOM: In a recent talk you gave, you said that when you first had your accident, your mind was polluted with the idea that life wasn’t worth living if you couldn’t walk. What did you think about disability at that time?
Billy Price: I was 18 years old, and up to that point I was a very active kid outdoors and in sports. I did a lot of stuff, and I was very independent and then that all came to a halt in a hurry and I didn’t have a vision. I didn’t know anyone in a chair. I didn’t really have any mentors. I’d never talked to anyone that was in a wheelchair before. My mind didn’t have a picture of what the future would, or even could, look like.
I had just entered college and only been there for a week and a half. The door had just been opened to this big, big world, and then the door came slamming shut. I’d think about mountain biking—and not being able to do that. Or kicking a soccer ball, or climbing a mountain—and not being able to do that.
I thought going to school, with the new friends I’d just met, would be taken away too. I didn’t have any tools to process what was happening, let alone to be in the moment, or, beyond that, to see what kind of potential I could have in life.
I couldn’t see through the fog, and my mind went to a dark place. I didn’t think there was any chance of one, living a successful life, and two, living a happy life.
But there were people around me who were able to see that potential in me, and to introduce me to this world that wasn’t a dead-end. They couldn’t fix me, but they were there to show me that I could still be successful, and to empower me to make a choice to make myself better.
BLOOM: How did your thinking on disability evolve over time?
Billy Price: It’s cliché, but it’s not what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside. There’s incredible strength in so many people, and you can’t judge a book by its cover. Everyone has issues in life. Life doesn’t discriminate in that regard. Life is just really tough.
It’s a matter of trying to find strength within, and having a good association of people around you. The world isn’t flat, so it’s a little more challenging in a chair to get around. But there are so many amazing people who find the strength within, to not only make themselves successful, but to empower others. They act as mentors and coaches to help others along.
BLOOM: You were in hospital for five months. What was the most challenging part of your rehab?
Billy Price: Every day was a challenge. I guess I’d say the hardest part was just keeping my mind together. I was in this denial that I was going to be walking out of the hospital. In my mind I’d think okay, today I’m going to work on my biceps, tomorrow it will be triceps, and then hand function. But it didn’t work that way. You can strengthen, but you can’t just all of a sudden repair nerve connectivity. The longer I was there, the more it became apparent.
But at the same time, I was recognizing that I was able to do things that I couldn’t do the day or week before. To feed myself all of a sudden—that was a good day. Being able to write my name—that was a good day. And the first time I pushed myself in a wheelchair across the room was incredibly empowering. It was the give and take and pull of not necessarily getting to where I wanted to be, but also accepting that when I was in the chair I could choose to recognize the strength I was gaining in that endeavour.
BLOOM: How are you able to write with minimal finger function?
Billy Price: I essentially take a pen and put it over the knuckle of my middle and ring finger, and under my pinkie and pointer finger. My fist is perpendicular with the table and I move my whole arm. I remember the first time I wrote a thank-you letter to all the people who came to visit me. The letter maybe had 20 words in it, and it took half an hour to write and, it was exhausting. But the more you do it, the stronger you get.
BLOOM: You said you went back to your school and back to your fraternity. Fraternities don’t sound particularly disability-friendly. How were you received?
Billy Price: Even though I’d only been in the house for a short period of time, I’d made these connections and relationships, and those new friends came to visit me in the hospital, which was right off the campus and not too far.
By a strange coincidence, the fraternity I joined is one of the few houses on campus that doesn’t have stairs to get into the front door. There was a room on the first floor, adjacent to a bathroom, that they remodelled and got set up for me.
The words accessibility and fraternities don’t typically go hand in hand, but we were able to make it work, and I was so grateful.
BLOOM: Did any of your fraternity brothers have experience with disability?
Billy Price: Not a lick. None of us did. We were all learning together. There wasn’t an elevator to the second or third floor, so guys would just pick me up and carry me.
BLOOM: One of the reasons I ask is that in the last couple of years there have been stories about people with Down syndrome who have rushed a sorority or fraternity and not gotten in. So I wondered if the fact that you first came to the fraternity able-bodied influenced how you were treated after your accident.
Billy Price: That’s a question I’ve never been asked before.
If I had rushed with a wheelchair, and not come in through the front door as an able-bodied person, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into the house. But that’s not because of the people, but because the building wasn’t set up for a wheelchair.
BLOOM: But when a building isn’t designed to be accessible, it conveys the message that people with disabilities don’t belong there.
Billy Price: It's hard to see that connection. I've never thought about it before.
BLOOM: What was the university like to navigate in a wheelchair?
Billy Price: I can’t say enough positive things about the university and how they accommodated me. I was allowed to enroll in all of my classes first, so I had first pick at classes. If there was any sort of logistical challenge, like there wasn’t enough time to get across campus from one class to another, or if the class was in a totally inaccessible building, they would move the class to a different spot. Because my writing was a lot slower, they gave me extra time. It was very empowering for me, because I could focus on academics.
While I was in college I had some internships with Boeing, and then I got introduced to the Federal Aviation Administration and I worked there as an engineer for 16 years. For my last three years, my co-founder and I started a business that became BILLY Footwear in 2015. We decided to base it on my story and the idea of building what you have, instead of mourning what you’ve lost. Our shoes hit the shelves in Nordstrom and Zappos in August of 2017, and all of the growth has happened since then.
BLOOM: You plan to launch a new shoe design at the end of 2020 that’s specifically for people who wear braces. What will be different about it?
Billy Price: When we first launched, we had no idea how powerful our drop-in solution was going to be, and that there’d be so many people out there looking for that. As soon as we went to market, the ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) community reached out and got really excited and started sharing our shoes with everyone, to the point that the popular belief was that the shoes were built specifically for AFOs.
Our shoes certainly work for AFOs, but it's not a total guarantee. Folks with larger braces will not be able to use our current shoes because the shoes are simply unable to create enough volume inside to accommodate. The shoes coming at the end of 2020 will be wider, deeper, and have an internal lining that is tear-resistant, as per customer feedback. Braces can be really rough on shoes.
BLOOM: I read that you have an almost one-year-old son. You mentioned that you never could have imagined how rich your life would be, back when you first received your diagnosis.
Billy Price: With the mindset I had in the hospital, there’s no way I could have ever seen, or envisioned, my life to turn out the way it is now. If someone back then had told me I would go back to school to get a degree, start a business, have a home and a family, and drive, I would have said they were lying. I try to highlight that to bring to everyone’s attention the capacity we all have within us—if we’re teamed with the right association of people, and if we allow ourselves to continue moving forward, and if we take it one day at a time.