“Growing up, I was always decorating my sister Isabel’s wheelchair for holidays and special occasions, and I tried to use my design skills to make her feel better about her wheelchair, so my college project was a perfect opportunity to see how far I could take the idea.”
When Galway native Ailbhe Keane was in her final year studying visual communications at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, she was set a project brief to come up with something that would empower the lives of someone living with a long-term health condition.
“Straight away, I thought of my sister Isabel with whom I’ve always been very close. Isabel was born with spina bifida which means she is paralysed from the waist down,” says Ailbhe.
Thus Izzy Wheels was born.
“As a wheelchair user, Isabel knows what needs improving and as a designer I can problem-solve and come up with some creative solutions. The thing that really took off was designing the wheels the wheels were like a blank canvas so I came up with various printed and coloured spoke guards.”
Ailbhe created an Instagram account and posted photos of the customised spoke guards and of Isabel modelling the wheels covers on her own wheelchair and was amazed by the response. “It just took off overnight. I started getting messages from wheelchair users all over the world asking where they could buy a set of Izzy Wheels. We’ve had a huge response from both wheelchair users and able-bodied people. Everyone can appreciate something that looks good.”
For Isabel, the spoke guards add some fashion fun to her look and, just as she might match her shoes or handbag to her outfit, so too can she coordinate her Izzy Wheels. “I love to dress colourfully and now thanks to these bespoke guards I can do that without having to deal with my wheelchair clashing with whatever I am wearing. It was something I had to deal with most days until the birth of the Izzy Wheels project,” she says.
With around 40,000 wheelchair users in Ireland, 640,000 in the UK and around 14.5 million throughout Europe and the US, the potential market for the product is huge.
“Wheelchairs basically look the same today as they did 100 years ago and people are crying out for innovative ideas,” says Ailbhe. “Design and disability is an area which really has been overlooked and for us wheels are the best place to start in helping people feel good about themselves.”
For Isabel, the spoke guards represent a way of showing her wheelchair is a a positive thing rather than something negative. “I think that the concept of removable and fashionable spoke guards is incredible because I finally have an effective way of showing the world that wheelchairs are not a symbol of incapacity,” says Isabel. “A wheelchair is an enabling device, not a disabling one.”
Having graduated with first class honours from NCAD last year, Ailbhe decided to launch her online store selling Izzy Wheels. The wheels are made in Ireland of a durable waterproof plastic material; the guards are easily fastened onto the spokes of the wheel and fit any size wheels for any manual wheelchair.
Currently, on the Izzy Wheels website, there is a limited edition collection by some top illustrators and designers .“The Irish Wheelchair Association asked us if Izzy Wheels would like to be included in their recent fashion show. I felt that this was a great opportunity to get more designers involved so I asked nine of Ireland’s best known illustrators and designers if they’d be interested and I was blown away by the response and the care, love and time each of them put into the collection,” says Ailbhe.
The Izzy Wheels in this new ‘Roll Models’ collection, are €149, while those in the main collection cost €99 per set. For every pair of Roll Model Izzy Wheels sold, a proportion of the money will go to the Irish Wheelchair Association.
“The artists I contacted were very excited to get on board because it was a very different kind of product and also because of its human impact,” says Ailbhe. “We’ve got some really big names involved and since it launched we’ve had many more illustrators and artists contact us who are keen to get involved so it’s likely we will be bringing out more designer collections.”
What started as a college project has grown into a business with enormous potential something that hasn’t gone unnoticed. The brand has been featured on RTÉ’s Nationwide as part of their program on National Women’s Enterprise Day, and was nominated for two awards by the Irish Design Institute in 2016. Ailbhe has also gained a place on Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme which is currently providing office space for her in Dublin as well as funding and business mentoring.
“As a designer it is a dream to be able to come up with designs that really impact on people’s lives,” says Ailbhe, while brand ambassador Isabel says that it is a personal goal of hers to encourage more people to become comfortable with the fact that they are wheelchair users.
“That is why Izzy Wheels’ tagline ‘If you can’t stand up, stand out’ really resonates with me,” she says. “People are going to see our wheelchairs whether we like it or not, so we may as well make them look as attractive as possible.”