When Ailbhe Keane was young, her little sister’s wheelchair was her art project. Isabel, paralyzed from the waist down by spina bifida, would at times have a chair decorated in bright colors. “It attracted a lot of attention,” says Ailbhe, “but it was just temporary stuff.”
Not so temporary anymore. The two sisters are founders of the Dublin-based Izzy Wheels, which sells colorful removable wheel covers for wheelchairs like Isabel’s. Isabel herself may be their best advertisement, zipping through their Instagram videos in her brightly colored duds and wheel covers, a huge grin on her face.
Izzy Wheels was born in 2016 from a final-year project Ailbhe completed for her visual communications degree at the National College of Art and Design. Inspired by her childhood hobby of decorating Isabel’s chair, she “spent a whole year experimenting with ways of improving the chair. And the wheels were just this big blank canvas screaming for something to make it look better.”
Your wheelchair looking the same every day is like wearing the same coat every day, the same pair of shoes.
Two years later, Ailbhe, 25, and Isabel, 21, are full-blown entrepreneurs, with customers in 35 countries (though most sales are to the U.S.) and 40 designer collaborations under their belts. While Ailbhe initially did all the design herself, she soon realized that her style wouldn’t suit every customer and reached out to a few designers. As Izzy Wheels has grown, Ailbhe says, dozens of designers are now reaching out weekly about working on sets of wheels. Ailbhe would not reveal the company’s revenue, though she says a portion of its proceeds will go to Irish disability-focused charities.
Ailbhe, busy as creative director of the brand, rarely designs herself now outside of bespoke projects — such as a set of wheels commissioned for a customer’s wedding. The sisters have seen professional accolades too: They made Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list this year and were the first Irish people featured on the main Instagram account last summer, which helped balloon their follower count to nearly 43,000.
Isabel, responsible for a growing social media community on Instagram and Facebook as the brand’s primary ambassador, is chatty and cheerful, with an expert touch at creating a positive, engaged community of customers online. You know how there are a select few brands people love? Izzy Wheels may have a limited community of consumers, but it’s a community that’s been largely ignored by consumer culture — and those who use the wheel covers are passionate, positive and proud, sending in photos of themselves with their new chair outfits and buying several sets of wheels. “You have different wheels to go with different moods, different outfits,” says Ailbhe. “Your wheelchair looking the same every day is like wearing the same coat every day, the same pair of shoes.”
That explanation — concise, relatable, witty — is another hallmark of the Keane sisters’ mission: They want the world to understand how people in wheelchairs relate to their chairs, to see those with disabilities as people rather than symbols of fortitude or a needy minority. “I’m very much aware that my chair is visible to other people when they meet me, and I don’t want that to be the elephant in the room,” says Isabel. “I want people to know they can approach me about it and ask me questions about it, and that’s not a rude thing. We all love talking about ourselves, and it’s a part of who I am.”
To be sure, having a good-looking wheelchair won’t necessarily make life for those with disabilities materially easier. While Isabel notes that Ireland offers free public travel for people with disabilities, they have to book a day in advance, and social spaces like nightclubs and concerts often have limited wheelchair access. Ireland has been slow to make changes to laws about disability: The 144-year-old Lunacy Regulations Act (yes, that was the name), allowing courts to control details of the lives of those with intellectual disabilities, was only repealed in 2015.
But life for people with disabilities in Ireland may be changing too. In March, it became the last country in Europe to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which insists on equality for the 13 percent of Irish citizens who are disabled. Alannah Murray, a young Irish disability activist, doesn’t use Izzy Wheels because they aren’t compatible with her chair, but she loves what the company is doing. “Izzy Wheels has really been a pioneer in turning disability into a fashion statement,” she says.
Murray notes that other positive changes are on the horizon, like fashion brand ASOS premiering its first wheelchair-friendly jumpsuit. In the U.S., stylist Stephanie Thomas launched the website Cur8able to show off disability-friendly fashion and has pushed major brands for more inclusive designs. “You can’t market to people you don’t see,” she said in a 2016 TEDx Talk. “And you just can’t see people that you don’t value. And I don’t mean value as human beings; I mean value as potential customers.”
The Keanes aren’t planning to stop at wheel covers. While Isabel is now part time with the company while studying politics and French at Galway University, there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to wheelchair fashion. Not only are people with disabilities rarely represented on catwalks, Isabel explains, but many people with disabilities can’t buy clothes from traditional stores. “Disability fashion has been such an underserved area of design for so long,” Ailbhe explains, hinting that the company will launch a new type of product by 2019. “We want to create things for wheelchairs and other mobility aids — fashionable things that look good, things that are designed by artists and fashion designers … not by hospitals.”