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Dawn’s case study

“Bill Bird Shoes has transformed my life.”

“I can now live my life – and I love my life. I can’t praise them enough,” Dawn Cooper, Reading

The case study that follows is Dawn’s story in her own words. To find out how the shoemakers at Bill Bird Shoes handcrafted Dawn’s shoes, boots and sandals in order to accommodate her condition, please read the final section in italics.

Dawn shows off her made-to-measure sandals from Bill Bird Shoes in the Midlands and London

Dawn wearing her bespoke sandals

I had polio at four months and after a series of operations on my tendons, I had my leg lengthened when I was ten. The surgeons didn’t lengthen my Achilles, so I walked on my toes. By the time I was 30 I had so much pain in my foot and heel that I had an operation to lengthen my Achilles tendon.

I had always been flatfooted but I had started to roll over onto the inside of my foot even more and this had serious consequences for my knee. That leg is not as strong as the other because the muscles are almost non-existent below my knee. The anterior cruciate ligament ruptured and that had to be reconstructed. Arthritis followed and then one of the endo buttons (used to ensure a strong ACL repair) came adrift and wore away the cartilage. After two exploratory Arthroscopy operations, I had to have a full complex knee replacement.

It was while I was having orthotics at The Circle Hospital that I first heard about Bill Bird Shoes. Faced with the option of having NHS orthopaedic shoes, the waiting list on the NHS was appalling, and also my pride prevented me from going down that route. I contacted Bill in 2014 and from that very first meeting I felt like a member of the family. They make you feel so welcome and have transformed my life quite frankly. I had lost my confidence and lost interest in my appearance. I felt so low and depressed and I had lost interest in going out.

These handmade boots from Bill Bird Shoes in the Cotswolds and London were made with the zip on the outside to prevent rubbing

These boots were created with the zip on the outside to prevent rubbing

I am a UK size three; so all my life buying shoes has been a nightmare. I could never find a pair of shoes that offered good support and fitted properly. I often had to buy children’s shoes – two pairs at a time because one of my feet is larger than the other.

“The designs are beautiful”

I had a pair of lace-up Victorian ‘Granny’ style boots made first as these seemed the most sensible. They fitted me perfectly and I found I could walk with confidence as my feet were comfortable. My next pair was sandals for the summer. I started to buy dresses and going out again. I was like the ugly duckling turning into the swan.

I would go through fashion magazines and select photos of shoes that I thought to be suitable for me but still very fashionable, then Emily and Becky would draw up with designs that would accommodate my feet. I’ve got grey sandals with a pink flash on the side and a cream pair with a snakeskin toe and heel. They have made a further pair of navy boots for me with the zip on the outside as it would always rub on the inside because I walk over on my foot and these also have fish-skin toes. Every pair fits me perfectly and is a joy to wear.

“When your feet are happy the rest of you is happy”

Dawn shows off her made-to-measure red sandals from Bill Bird Shoes in the Midlands and London

Dawn in her made-to-measure sandals in red

I love each and every pair. The designs are beautiful; they are all different and all of them have had input from the whole team. They are just heavenly people at Bill Bird Shoes – it doesn’t matter who you see. I love them all!

I have been very fortunate, in some ways, to be able to afford these shoes. I lost my dad five years ago so I have had the money to enable me to be able to buy them. I went out for lunch with my mum recently and left her at the table to use the ladies. When I came back she said she couldn’t believe the difference in the way I walked. I have always limped and rolled but she said I was upright, straight and confident. She is absolutely delighted and says that this is what my dad would have wanted and intended. It’s just a shame he’s not here to see the benefits.

They are expensive but the investment is well, well worth it. You make stage payments so don’t have to pay for them upfront, it’s more manageable. They are a long-term investment and they change your life. If you look after them properly I’m sure they will last your lifetime. I just wish I had found Bill Bird Shoes sooner!

“My shoes have taken away the fear I had for the future”

Before I found them my future didn’t look so great and my fear was that I would end up on crutches or in a wheelchair. This may well still happen but what these shoes have done is push the goal posts much further back. My shoes are an essential part of my lifestyle. I can live my life – and I love my life. I can’t praise them enough.

Accommodating Dawn’s unique needs

Dawn's handcrafted shoes, boots and sandals from Bill Bird Shoes in the Midlands and London

Dawn’s handcrafted shoes, boots and sandals from Bill Bird Shoes

Poliomyelitis, the childhood disease that affected Dawn when she was just six months old has been around as far back as history can record and in the first half of the 20th Century many epidemics occurred. An oral vaccine became widely available in the UK in 1962 and the disease began to be eradicated. The last domestic case in the UK was in 1981. It is widely expected that polio will be eliminated worldwide by 2018.

A small percentage of people affected by polio, usually young children, suffered various degrees of temporary paralysis usually in the legs and feet. Affecting only on one side, this could lead to one leg being considerably shorter and weaker than the other. The foot was often affected as well, leaving it smaller in size and sometimes misshaped.

When Bill Bird began working independently thirty years ago, many of his clients had been affected by polio in their childhood during the big epidemics of the 1940s and 50s, so most of these were then in their 30s to 50s. Some of them had never had stylish footwear before, having spent their early years in supportive leather ankle boots. Now, most are in their 60s to 80s if not older. Dawn however, is the youngest client we have who was affected in this way.

Polio can leave many issues to deal with. The legs can be different lengths, one being much slimmer than the other. One foot can be much shorter, narrower and weaker. In Dawn’s case, through a lot of patience and hard work on her part, she had her shorter right leg lengthened, and although it is considerably slimmer than the left, both her legs are a nice shape. Her left foot and leg are strong and well shaped as they have been working hard to make up for the weaker right.

Dawn’s right foot is about two sizes shorter than the left, is smaller all around, has a tendency to roll inwards and cannot straighten. Because Dawn cannot get the heel of her right foot down to the ground, we have to put a higher heel on her shoes to help her bear weight through her ankles so that we can support her feet all over.

The art is to make a pair of lasts that look like a pair whilst fitting very differently shaped feet. We do this by making the fronts match so that the size and shape differences are taken up in the back part of the shoes or boots where they are less seen.

Dawn’s right ankle needs support and the heels need to be wide at the base to prevent her foot rolling inwards. With her right foot and ankle fixed downwards, we can make a 40mm (1 1/2″) heel with a Louis XVl shape that gives elegance together with a wide base. The uppers are designed to give ankle support whilst also drawing attention to the front of the foot where the lasts have been made to look more a pair. The stiffeners and arch supports on the right are strong and firm, giving Dawn the confidence to walk without concern of falling whilst not making a visible difference. With her ankle boots, we put a cushion lining in the right to make the ankles appear more alike.

Dawn has always been a delightful person to work for not just because of her bubbly personality but also because of the time she takes to think through and research to find appropriate designs for us to base our designs on that we find as exciting to make as she does to wear.

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