Accessible DesignLife & BusinessQ&A

Izzy Wheels: Empowering Wheelchair Users Through Vibrant Color & Personality

by Kelli Kehler

When Ailbhe and Izzy Keane were kids, Ailbhe’s heart would break when she’d see her sister Izzy, who was born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, become discouraged. “Growing up she found it very frustrating and upsetting that there was nothing available for her to personalize her wheelchair,” Ailbhe remembers. “Her chair was the first thing that people noticed about her, but it wasn’t a [reflection] of her bright and bubbly personality.”

The inseparable Irish sisters would team up to decorate Izzy’s chair for myriad special occasions, projecting onto it the colors and bits of pizzazz that so aptly encompassed Izzy’s personality.

So it was a natural move for the two to found Izzy Wheels in 2016, a brand of stylish wheelchair covers that initially sparked as a final-year art project for Ailbhe when she was finishing her visual communications degree. Since then — under the mission statement “If you can’t stand up, stand out!” — the sisters have collaborated with 40 artists and fashion designers for their wheel cover collections, garnered 10 national awards, graced publications like Vogue, and were named in this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30.

Today we’re talking with Ailbhe about Izzy Wheels — their beginnings, their mission to empower wheelchair users, and more. —Kelli

Image above: Ailbhe, left, and Izzy, right, in a portrait by Celeste Sloman.

Image above by Helen Steele

Tell us about how Izzy Wheels came to be.

My younger sister, Izzy, was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed from her waist down. Growing up she found it very frustrating and upsetting that there was nothing available for her to personalize her wheelchair. Her chair was the first thing that people noticed about her but it wasn’t a [reflection] of her bright and bubbly personality. Izzy and I have always been best friends and when we were little, we always loved dressing up her chair for special occasions. Having decorated wheels gave her a huge confidence boost and attracted loads of positive attention. I came up with the idea for Izzy Wheels in 2016 when I was in my final year in The National College of Art and Design while I was studying Visual Communications. I designed a range of stylish wheel covers for wheelchairs so that users could express their individuality. Together we came up with the motto “If you can’t stand up, stand out.” The project gained viral success online, so we decided to open an online store selling our designs and we started collaborating with other designers.

Can you tell us about what you make and why you chose to focus on wheelchair covers specifically?

We make stylish wheel covers that come in 3 sizes and attach onto any manual wheelchair. We collaborate with artists, graphic [designers], illustrators, graffiti artists and fashion [designers] all over the world to create our designs.

Disability fashion is a massively underserved area of design. Wheelchairs look the same as they did a hundred years ago. My sister has a very positive relationship with her wheelchair and she wanted to express that. She sees it has a symbol of her ability, not her disability. Wheelchairs are incredible devices which grant people with physical impairments their freedom and they should be celebrated. We are starting off by specializing in wheel covers because wheels are like a big, blank canvas to design on. As well as that, we are already working on adding a range of other fashionable wheelchair accessories to our collection.

Image above by Celeste Sloman

Can you explain the artistic process and how you come up with the designs you offer? Are there any special parameters the artwork needs to meet or consider?

The wheel covers are an interesting shape to design for due to their circular and rotational form. You have to take into consideration that the wheel spins around so the design must look just as good upside down and right side up. We give our designers complete creative freedom when they are designing their wheels so it’s really interesting seeing how they play around with the shape.

Image above by Sarah Doyle

What do you hope people feel when using these wheelchair covers?

I still get butterflies when I spot people out in the wild wearing their Izzy Wheels. The most meaningful part of what we do is when people send us photos of themselves wearing their Izzy Wheels and hearing the impact wearing the designs has on their confidence. We call our community our Spokes People. People now engage with them in situations where they otherwise would’t have. Each week we have a Spokes Person of the week and we share their photo and story with our community online. We are also contacted by hundreds of people who felt inspired by us to decorate their mobility equipment such as walking frames, canes and prosthetic limbs with art. Schools have even started doing art workshops with their students to design wheel art inspired by our work. It’s an excellent way to teach children, teenagers and adults about inclusivity.

Image above by Helen Steele

There is nothing more rewarding than seeing something that you’ve created bring happiness to others.

What was the first Izzy Wheels design? How has your style evolved from that first initial design to the covers you offer now?

The first pair of wheel covers I designed were animated so when the wheels spun around the designs would come to life. The concept was based around the zoetrope, the earliest form of animation. They were purple with birds on them and they are still one of our best selling designs.

Image above by Ailbhe Keane

What have you learned in the process of starting your own business and the subsequent success that has followed?

Success doesn’t just happen, it’s created. I founded Izzy Wheels when I was just 22. I am proud to be a young woman and director of my own company. Success can’t happen without hard work but if you are passionate, driven and excited by what you do, nothing should get in the way of that. I have learned to never be afraid to ask others for help — it’s not a sign of weakness. We need to support and inspire each other.

Image above by Celeste Sloman

What advice do you have for those who wish to start a business that helps others?

Having a job that helps others is incredibly fulfilling. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing something that you’ve created bring happiness to others. If you are not extremely passionate about the business you are pursuing then you will lose motivation, so pick something that is close to your heart.

What's next for Izzy Wheels? Any big projects in the works?

We are working with 10 new incredible designers on our next collection. We have some really exciting names in the mix and we are super excited to share it with everyone in early November.

How can people who don't live with a disability support your work and those in the community?

We need to educate each other about disability and the language around it. You should never use the term “wheelchair-bound.” It is a very outdated term that is still used a lot in mainstream media. Nobody is “bound” to their wheelchair, wheelchairs are incredible devices that grant people their freedom and increase their quality of life. As we age as a society most of us and the people we love will acquire a disability of some sort. Mobility aids don’t have to be sad and clinical looking, they can be incredibly beautiful and another way for you to express your sense of identity. You can follow our work on Instagram @izzywheels.

Image above by Celeste Sloman

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