NEW YORK — Steve Kaufman’s teenage son was forced a few years ago to wear a tight torso brace that countered his spine-curving scoliosis, but also blocked him from bending over.
Suddenly, Kaufman found himself tying and untying an extra pair of shoes each day.
Six years later, Kaufman, an entrepreneur and former robotics engineer, has designed a solution for people, like his son, who have struggled to tie their own laces: snap-on shoes that are "hands-free" like slip ons, but also laced tight like sneakers.
On Monday, Kaufman won a $15,000 award from the New York Public Library for his plan to produce the orthopedic shoes, called Quikiks.
Eventually, he hopes to open a Bronx facility where people with disabilities could help package the shoes, which are designed to be easy to use, but hard to detect.
“The idea was to make it look like any other shoe,” said Kaufman, 49, “not like some orthopedic Frankenstein monstrosity.”
Beginning with a cardboard model cobbled together in his living room, Kaufman spent the past five years building dozens of shoe prototypes.
The now-patented mechanism he created lets wearers click the shoes’ rotating heel into place around their feet, like ski boots, then pop them off by stomping down at a certain angle.
The men and women’s shoes — which resemble ordinary sneakers or casual leather lace-ups — are designed for people with arthritis, back pain and cognitive or physical disabilities that make it difficult to tie shoelaces.
Kaufman met one woman at an orthopedic convention who said her son, who has cerebral palsy, was able to do most daily tasks himself — except put on his shoes.
"Your shoes are going to enable my son to go away to college," said the woman, who is now a member of the Quikiks advisory board, according to Kaufman.
On Monday, Kaufman’s design beat out 48 other business plans to win the 2013 New York StartUP! Business Plan Competition, run by the library system and funded by the Citi Foundation.
He has also launched an online campaign to raise $39,000 to produce the steel molds needed before production can begin at an overseas shoe factory. Donors can also pre-order the shoes, which Kaufman hopes will be ready to wear by next spring.
Kaufman, whose son has a rare disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome, is the board president of a Riverdale-based nonprofit called Services for the Developmentally Challenged.
Part of Quikik’s profits will be donated to that agency and others that serve people with disabilities.
But Kaufman’s ultimate goal is to employ the agency’s clients, who often struggle to find good jobs, at a facility in The Bronx that would assemble, package and distribute the shoes.
The facility, like the shoes it would churn out, would be all about empowerment, Kaufman said.
“You’d now have people with disabilities,” he said, “making shoes for other people with disabilities.”