Isabel and Ailbhe Keane – sisters and best friends from Galway, Ireland – are changing the way people look at wheelchairs.
The idea was prompted as Ailbhe began work for a project during her final year at The National College of Art and Design in Dublin. “I came across a brief which asked me to ‘Empower the lives of people living with a long term lifestyle related health condition.’ Immediately, I thought of my sister, Isabel, who has been a wheelchair user all of her life,” Ailbhe recalls.
Isabel lives with a condition called spina-bifida: “When a person is born with this condition it means that the neural tube which carries messages from the brain to other parts of the body is unprotected by the vertebrae in a certain area,” she explains. “In my case, when I was born the neural tube was exposed at the base of my back.”
Growing up, Isabel and Ailbhe used to “dress up” Isabel’s wheelchair for special occasions such as holidays and parties. “This always created a lot of positive attention and gave her a big confidence boost,” says Ailbhe. “I wanted to revisit this concept and see how far I could take it.”
The result was a range of colourful spoke guards (think hubcaps for wheelchairs) for Isabel’s chair. Ailbhe aptly named the project Izzy Wheels, and coined the tagline: “If you can’t stand up, stand out!”
“I was genuinely delighted when Ailbhe told me that she wanted to focus on improving the aesthetics of wheelchairs for her final year project,” shares Isabel, who’s currently a student at the National University of Ireland. “I knew that she was aware of the positive relationship that I have with my wheelchair, so I was I was really excited to see how she used her bucket-loads of creativity to depict this.”
Ailbhe also created an Izzy Wheels Instagram account to put photos of the snazzy spoke guards on display. Soon enough, she was getting messages from people, including wheelchair users and their parents, wondering how they could purchase these designs. In the summer of 2016, Ailbhe opened an online store and started taking orders.
“It all happened very fast from there. I went straight from being a student to running my own business full-time. I haven’t looked back since and can’t believe how fast it’s still growing. I joined Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development program this January, and I was given an office, funding and business mentoring.”
The public response has been incredible. The sisters even won the Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow award for 2017. As Ailbhe points out, Izzy Wheels has a following outside of wheelchair users – it appeals to anyone who appreciates good design. The spoke guards are meant to be an accessory, like a handbag or a pair of shoes, so the different illustrations lend themselves to various styles and moods. A set of spoke guards featuring Schnauzer faces was inspired by the Keanes’ dog, Pompie. A pink, sprinkled donut, flying toucans, and even Christmas designs are just a few of the things chair users can sport on their wheels.
Ailbhe isn’t the only person doing the designing. Izzy Wheels had its first artist collaboration collection in January. The collection, titled “Roll Models” was launched at the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) Fashion show. A portion from the sales went the IWA.
“The artists were all so incredibly kind and wonderful to donate their designs to Izzy Wheels,” says Ailbhe.
“Since launching that collection we get messages every week from artists all over the world asking can they create a design for us.”
“To keep up with demand we are launching a new collaboration collection this summer with designs from all over Europe.”
For Isabel, the stylish spoke guards have given her a new way to embrace who she is.
“From the first time I wore my Izzy Wheels out in public, people have approached myself and my wheelchair completely differently. Up to then I think some people felt a bit uncomfortable acknowledging the fact that I am in wheelchair as though my disability was kind of a taboo subject. Now that I am clearly drawing attention to it, it’s like like letting people know ‘I know I’m in a wheelchair and I am 100 percent comfortable with it.’ My disability is part of who I am and I think it is important to embrace everything that makes you, you.”