Necessity Is the Father of Invention

A dad (and robotics engineer) creates hands-free shoes to help his son—and many other people with temporary or permanent disabilities.

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Photo by Masako Kaufman

Think for a minute about putting on your shoes. You bend down, maneuver your foot inside with the help of your hands, pull and tie the laces, and voila, you’re done. But for some people, it’s not that easy. Alex Kaufman was one of these people. Explains his dad, Steve, “About eight years ago, when Alex was 13, he was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. To prevent the curve from worsening, Alex had to wear a big, tight torso brace—hips to armpits—22 hours a day.” Among the many unintended discomforts and inconveniences of this treatment was that Alex was unable to bend over to put on his shoes.

That got Steve thinking—and sketching and tinkering. You see, Steve is a robotics engineer. What exactly does that mean?

“That’s a good question. I think the answer is different today than when I went to school,” says Steve, now 51, who graduated with dual degrees from NYU in Computer Science and The Cooper Union in Electrical Engineering. “I was hired out of college to work in Japan for Texas Instruments on a mobile robot system to help automate the computer chip manufacturing process. I was brought in to program the robot, and develop and implement testing to make sure it lived up to the design specifications.”

Impressive and intimidating, but how that translates is that Steve had the chops, when all this came up, to create a shoe—not a clog, not a flip-flop, but I real, snug-fit, supportive shoe—that Alex and others could put on without using their hands.

Who are these others? “Oh my gosh, there are so many,” says Steve, “like chronic back-pain sufferers, post-stroke victims, those afflicted with Cerebral Palsy and autism, people struggling with obesity and severe arthritis, hand and arm amputees and even the temporarily needy—say people who have had an accident or those in rehab from hip-replacement surgery. The list goes on and on.”

In the seven years since he started working on these shoes—called Quikiks—Steve has garnered as many awards, including one for innovation at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. (To see how they work, watch this 35-second video.) Alex sometimes helps his dad at conferences, where response has been phenomenal. “I’ve met so many people along the way–like the woman with vertigo who told me she almost faints every time she bends over to put her shoes on, or the mother of a boy with autism, who broke down crying in my trade-show booth telling me that they fight every morning because her son wants to put his shoes on by himself and gets frustrated when he can’t.”

Alex shows just as much enthusiasm. Steve smiles: “During a lull in the action at one show, I asked Alex to go around and hand out some of our flyers. After the event as we headed to our car, I noticed he’d even given flyers to the parking attendants!”

Beyond making life easier for people via his products, Steve is helping through his business model. As a board member for an agency called Services for the Developmentally Challenged (SDC), in Riverdale, NY, Steve has seen firsthand how difficult it can be to find employment opportunities for people with disabilities. “My goal is to build a Quikiks distribution center in New York City that will provide long-term sustainable employment for people with disabilities.”

After four long years in that body brace, Alex’s scoliosis was in control. Now 21, he managed to avoid the surgery that would have meant metal rods permanently attached along the length of his spine.

“So the result is Alex doesn’t need my shoes anymore,” says Steve. “But I told him I’m still going to make them, because there are a whole lot of other people out there who do.”

Know someone in need of Quikiks? realsimple.com users and their friends and families can get a 20 percent discount plus free shipping (all styles are casual and functional—think walking shoes or sneakers) till June 30th using the code RS-20 at checkout, or by phone at 888-656-2751.