The eye-catching disability icebreaker

Wheelchair covers that spark conversations and connections

How much of your childhood dreams or activities still play a part in your adulthood? In Ireland, two sisters have turned their childhood dream to a real business.

One of their favorite things to do together as kids was to play dress-up and decorate the wheelchair of the sister born with spina bifida. Today, the two sisters are the proud founders of Izzy Wheels: an empowering fashion brand of wheel covers.

A college project turns a business

Already in her childhood, Ailbhe Keane loves to help her younger sister Izzy decorate her wheelchair for special occasions. With the nicely decorated wheels, Izzy receives positive attention from strangers complimenting her wonderful wheelchair. This really cheers her up because she usually receives looks of pity from strangers. She explains at many occasions,

“One of the biggest challenges that myself and other wheelchair users encounter when we meet people who don’t use a wheelchair, or don’t know a wheelchair user, is how to portray it in a way that is positive.”

The Irish sisters talk about their thoughts and relationships with wheelchairs.

Later, Ailbhe studied at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design. The positive experiences with the decorated wheels inspired her to pursue her final year design project with the theme “to empower the lives of people living with a long-term, lifestyle-related health condition”. During the project, Ailbhe created a range of removable wheel covers for Izzy’s wheelchair not only to match her outfits but also to demonstrate her bright personality and positive relationship with her wheelchair, which people often overlook.

Later the project went viral online after Ailbhe shared photos of Izzy modelling her colorful new wheels on Instagram. Wheelchair users contacted them to express their interest to buy the covers, and designers wrote to express their interest to collaborate. In 2016, the Irish sisters transformed the college project to a start-up business “Izzy Wheels” with the tagline “If you can’t stand up, stand out!”.

Ailbhe and Izzy on the cover of SpokeOut magazine by the Irish Wheelchair Association.

Ailbhe and Izzy on the cover of SpokeOut magazine by the Irish Wheelchair Association. (Source: Facebook@irishwheelchairassociation)

Small business pushing through the mainstream

So far Izzy Wheels has already sold their wheel covers to over 35 countries. Having featured in some of the world’s top global publications such as Vogue, Forbes and Cosmopolitan, the brand continues to work with designers across the globe to create stylish and playful wheel covers, bridging the gap between disability and fashion.

What do the Irish sisters think about this gap? They shared in an interview with Natasha Lipman, a chronic illness blogger and journalist from London:

“We still have a long way to go before fashion for differently-abled people is mainstream but we need to keep pushing.”

If more big companies take the lead to include differently-abled people on their advisory boards, there will be a better chance for the whole industry to follow suit and make businesses for differently-abled people a mainstream.

“I want people to feel comfortable with moving in a slightly more positive direction even it’s just baby steps,” shares Izzy.

Global recognition and iconic breakthrough

The global recognition of Izzy Wheels continues to grow as the sisters became the first Irish people to take over Instagram’s official story in 2017, reaching over 250 million people. They were also named in the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of promising entrepreneurs in 2018.

One of their latest achievements is to create four limited edition Izzy x Barbie wheelchair wheel covers for a new Barbie range called “Barbie Fashionistas” which includes dolls in a wheelchair.

Barbie x Izzy Wheels

Mainstreaming disability: Barbie x Izzy Wheels. (Source: Facebook@izzywheels)

The sisters described the collaboration as “a dream come true”. Now children as well as adults with disabilities can play with a Barbie that they can relate to, and they can even buy a matching set of wheel covers for themselves. Such a collaboration with the fashion and cultural icon is truly another great milestone for the disability representation in the mainstream.

Going global doesn’t change how the sisters want to run their business. They still insist on all their wheel covers made to order, hand-wrapped and sent to their customers with a hand-written letter from them. They consider Izzy Wheels a work of art like they consider wheelchairs as a positive and friendly object rather than something purely functional. They enjoy hearing people’s stories about their own personal relationships with their wheelchairs.

“Don’t just follow the money, create a business that makes the world a better place.”

How’s your relationship with your wheelchair? Do you decorate your wheelchair and why? Share with us!

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