In 1996, Billy Price was a freshman in college when he fell headfirst out the window of a three-story building and became paralyzed from the chest down. After the accident, he learned new ways to accomplish daily tasks independently. But shoes were elusive. Price wasn’t able to step his feet into shoes to get them on, and his limited hand dexterity made tying laces impossible. His only option was a pair of oversized, unattractive medical shoes.
After years of depending on other people to help him put on his shoes, he teamed up with his longtime friend Darin Donaldson to find a solution. In 2011, they set out to create a shoe stylish enough that anyone would want to wear, but was functional for people with a variety of special needs. The result was a simple, cool-looking shoe with a single zipper that runs down the side and across the toes.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILLY FOOTWEAR
The first time Price tried on a prototype was an extremely meaningful moment. “Literally half a lifetime later, I was able to gain this independence that I had lost for many, many years,” says Price, now 42.
Today, Price and Donaldson are co-founders of BILLY Footwear. Headquartered in Kent, the company offers high-tops, low-tops and cozy boots with adaptive zippers in more than a hundred unique styles to customers around the world. Their shoes, sold in stores including Nordstrom, Zappos, Kids Foot Locker and Macy’s, run from toddler sizes all the way to adult women’s and men’s sizes. Next year, they plan to add a selection of widths.
Over the past few years, the company has seen a dramatic increase in sales. After selling 5,000 pairs in 2017 and 30,000 in 2018, they expect to finish 2019 with 65,000 pairs sold. Although they’re designed for everyone to enjoy, the shoes are most popular with children who have autism and cerebral palsy, as well as adults who have survived a stroke or suffered a spinal-cord injury. A recent customer was thrilled to see her daughter, who wears braces on her feet, put on boots from BILLY Footwear all by herself for the very first time.
Price emphasizes that shoes with a universal design can make an extraordinary difference in the life of a person with limited mobility: “Just being able to take back that little independence, in my case, that was really kind of an earth-shattering deal in a very positive way.”