In the spirit of showing our shoes work for individuals other than just myself, I called up my friend, Stefan, who also uses a wheelchair. Our paths first crossed in 1997 when Stefan started doing his rehab just a few months after I finished mine. Stefan moved to San Diego a few years later and although we seldom see each other, we remain connected. Being somewhat close to the Los Angeles area, one of the television producers reached out to Stefan (unbeknownst to me) to get potential contacts for the focus-group challenge.
So who do I see first when we get to the Precision Rehabilitation Facility for the focus-group challenge? Stefan. So good to see a familiar face. After quickly catching up, he asks me about the specifics regarding the "focus group". The funny thing is I could not tell him, not because I was bound to secrecy but that I honestly did not know what the plan was. I knew there were going to be people anxious to try on our shoes but beyond that I had no idea.
The kicker came a few minutes later when we were told that we would be the ones running the focus group. Hearing the news, my mind raced. Internally I was saying, "You've gotta be kidding me! We have no control of who is part of the group, how the room is set up, nor have we even seen the prototypes that the audience will be evaluating us on and setting the initial public impression of our company. Oh, and let's throw in a bunch of cameras to capture this potential disaster on television!"
Through the whole television process thus far we are constantly reminded we are not being set up to fail but talk about being led right to the edge of the cliff. In addition, with the amount of resources put into the "focus group" there was a ton of money already tied up in the day on the network's end. Whether they realized it or not, I'd say there was a significant amount of risk put on Darin and me in that moment in time.
While Darin was stewing about how our company was now going to be represented on television to the rest of the planet I simply said, "Ok. I got it." There was no time to say or think otherwise. Dig deep, focus, and make it happen.
Moving upstairs, Darin and I met Sarah and Lauren who were standing in front three giant easels, peppered in marketing and design renderings that were put together by Tether. Looking at a rendering of our revised goat logo, Sarah exclaims, "This one! THIS one!" We exchanged huge grins and looks of total agreement.
Next Maral came in with a big box that contained the three shoes that we used for the day. We had a men's size 9, 10 and 11. Opening the carton revealed the three individual shoe boxes. Darin and Maral had put in an added touch that definitely generated the surprised, emotional reaction they were hoping for. Each box had a huge sticker displaying our existing goat logo and the words, Empowering Independence, which sent both Sarah and me to tears.
Heading in to the presentation room, I could see all of the Tether renderings on full display propped up on easels that were in the hallway moments prior. They displayed our story, goal, and endless potential perfectly. In the audience were a collection of wheelchair folks - quadriplegics, paraplegics, diabetics, and elderly. Also in the audience were other volunteers with no paralysis representing the masses.
The response from the adaptive crowd was smashing. One gentleman, Juan, was able to put on his own shoes for the first time in 12 years following a paralyzing helicopter crash in Iraq. That one was huge - brought the house down - so moving.
The response from the able-body crowd was lukewarm. The real unfortunate thing about the comments from the able-bodies was the feedback was obvious. Every concern brought up would have been mitigated had we had more time to develop the prototypes. In addition, the prototype that Darin and I had made through Winnie would have been much more of a hit with the "able body" crowd. The focus group only used the shoes that were specifically made for the focus-group-challenge.
Regarding Juan, I'd say that whole scenario was a huge win but it could have been equally as huge in a disastrous way. Juan, a quad with similar function to me, was determined to get his shoe on - a feat he had never been able to achieve. Of course the producers were ecstatic for this opportunity but oh, man, was I nervous - even scared of the backfire ramifications. Yes with our new shoe I have put it on independently but I have never attempted to put it on in my wheelchair. And Juan was in a power chair, which can be much more restricting in terms of ability to move. But his chair did have some fantastic features, the backrest could recline and the footrest could raise so his legs became completely straight out in front of him.
Determined to succeed, Juan leaned as far forward as possible and started the process. Sitting in my chair perpendicular to the front of him, I said, "So Juan, I don't have any trunk support - seeing you reach so far forward for your feet is there a chance you are going to end up in my lap?" Juan chuckles and says, "Maybe!" At that point I asked Sarah to come around to Juan's side just incase he pitched forward past the point of no return. I also suggested Juan recline his chair just a tad to encourage more trunk support.
Juan hooked under his knee and started to lift. His foot slowly separated from his existing velcro bootie that had been loosened. The bootie then fell to the floor. Good riddance. Step 1 complete.
I handed Juan a right shoe in size 10. He received it and began to unzip it. Me internally, I say, "Please, Lord, unzip easy." Juan finished unzipping the shoe and then stretched out to position the shoe for the next step. Step 2 complete.
Lifting his foot the best he can via outstretched arms clasped around his calf, he slid his foot across the shoe and the shoe turned over. No go on the first attempt.
He then moved his foot back and I helped position the shoe in the same place as it was before. Second attempt, same method, same outcome.
"Ok, Juan, we need to make a change," I said. "I'll hold the shoe in position - you lift that heal of yours as high as you can and drop it in to this open space." Third attempt - victory. Step 3 complete.
Next up, the zipper. Juan reached out as far as he could and navigated his thumb through the elastic loop of the zipper pull. Stretching out even farther, Juan continued to work the zipper head along. Soon the zipper head was at the front of the shoe and working around the corner. Then the zipper hung up; it was caught on his sock. Sarah reached in and cleared the obstruction. I then reached in with my paw and put it under the front sole of the shoe to ensure it stayed against the underside of Juan's foot. Determined, Juan keeps pulling on the elastic loop. "Move zipper!" my internal voice screams. Juan pulls harder. The elastic loop was stretched out to the max. Then suddenly, Snap! I yell out, "Oh no! Failure!" The elastic pull gave way and the loop was no more. There were gasps from the crowd. My nightmare came rushing back to me. Internally I ask, "Why are we using elastic? Why not a normal shoe-lace-type loop? If Darin and I had the chance to try these shoes out ahead of time we could have prevented this. Why are we not using our Winnie prototype that I know will work?" "Somebody tie a knot!" calls Sarah. Maral on point from behind the cameras, "Billy, I have more pull loops!" Somehow bouncing through the crowd Maral got to her tool box of shoe accessories and was back in an instant. A new loop was then put back on the zipper pull via larks head and Juan was back in business. "Hold on a second, Juan," I say. "We need to change your foot position here. You're having to reach way the hell down here and your foot is kinda angled. Grab your leg and move your foot a little closer to you." Juan grabbed his leg and lifted. His foot moved up the chair about six inches until it was pressed against the calf pad on his elevated foot rest. "Perfect," I say, "and is your heal still in?" Taking a quick look it was. "Now pull your pants up so they are not in your shoe." Using both of his palms, Juan pressed them together and pulled on his sweats. As they inched up, his heal became more visible. "Nice. Got it. Ok, you are now in great position. Your foot is set perfectly in the shoe, your heal is down, your foot is closer to you. You got this," I say aloud and hope twice as much internally. Juan grabbed again for the zipper pull and again navigated his thumb through the elastic pull. You could see Juan felt success was approaching. "Come on, zipper," I keep thinking. Sarah, doing her best to keep here tears back, is thinking the same. Later she told me, "I have never willed a zipper to move more in my life!" The zipper slowly continued to creep forward until it made that final sound a zipper makes when it reaches its end destination - a sound that never sounded so sweet. Done. Success. Applause erupted. Smiles of accomplishment and tears of joy around. A simple task so easy for the majority now achievable for the minority. "There it is, Sarah," I say. "That's what it's all about." Step 4 complete.
And Step 5? Someone asked Juan's wife, Gabriela, what she thought. "Yeah, that's great. Now put on your other shoe!"
It was a good day.