‘If you can’t stand up, stand out’ – that's the tagline of Izzy Wheels, a brand founded by Irish sisters Ailbhe and Izzy Keane who are making waves in disability fashion as they reclaim individuality and joy with their unique range of colourful wheel covers
Until now, wheelchair users have had little to no choice over the appearance of their equipment. Izzy Wheels is about to change that. With its unique, waterproof wheel covers that can be made to attach on to any size wheel, the sisters behind the brand are bringing colour and individualism to disability fashion.
But what they have created is bigger than just wheelchair accessories. It’s a putting a new perspective on disability. It’s about giving people the freedom to express themselves where previously they were restricted. And it’s about breaking down stigma, and reframing wheelchairs as a symbol of ability, rather than disability. The ability to express ourselves as we wish shouldn’t be a privilege – it’s a right, and Ailbhe and Izzy are the colour-wielding visionaries leading the way.
Izzy Keane was born with spina bifida, a spinal defect that means she is paralysed from the waist down. She used a wheelchair, but was always frustrated that there was nothing available to personalise it.
“Her chair was the first thing that people noticed about her, but it wasn’t a reflection of her bright and bubbly personality,” says Ailbhe.
The sisters have always had an eye for colour and design, and growing up they loved dressing Izzy’s chair for special occasions. So when Ailbhe came to her final project at the National College of Art and Design, the topic seemed obvious.
“I designed a range of stylish wheel covers for wheelchairs so that users could express their individuality,” says Ailbhe. “And I created an Instagram account showing off the designs with fun little videos of Izzy dancing in her new wheels.”
What began as a college project soon became something much bigger when the Izzy Wheels account started to get thousands of followers and messages from people around the world who wanted to buy the wheel covers.
The pair opened their online store, and two years and 10 national awards later, the wheel covers are now being sold in 35 different countries, and feature designs from more than 40 different artists, including Okudart, Maser, Orla Kiely, Steve Simpson and Camille Walala, to name a few.
“The collaborations with these famous designers shine a positive light on disability and inclusion,” says Ailbhe. “It’s refreshing to have wheelchair accessories designed by artists instead of hospitals.”
Today, there are approximately 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK, and yet the design and look of wheelchairs hasn’t changed much since they were invented. For the Keane sisters, disability fashion is a massively underserved area of design and something they wanted to address. “My sister has a very positive relationship with her wheelchair and she wanted to express that,” says Ailbhe. “She sees it as a symbol of her ability, not her disability.”
And she should. As Ailbhe points out, wheelchairs are an incredible thing. They grant freedom and autonomy where, without them, lives would be much more restricted. So why shouldn’t they be celebrated?
“Self-expression is a human right,” says Ailbhe. “Until now wheelchair users have had no choice in the appearance of their equipment.”
It’s a sentiment that’s shared with Izzy Wheel’s online following of 42,000 people. For Izzy and Ailbhe, what’s equally as rewarding as building a blossoming business, is the discovery of a huge online community of people who share this positive relationship with their mobility equipment, and who are equally passionate about disability fashion.
“The proudest and most meaningful part of what we do is when people send us photos of themselves wearing their Izzy Wheels. We call these our ‘spokespeople’, and each week we have a ‘spokesperson’ of the week and we share their photo and story with our community. They speak about how the wheel covers have impacted on their lives and changed how people engage with them in such a positive way.”
“We quickly realised that men are also interested in our designs,” says Ailbhe. “We invite both male and female designers to work on each of our collections with us, and while, at the moment, a lot of our designs are quite feminine, as we grow we will have more male-focused collections.”
And it’s not just buyers who are increasing the demand on the sisters.
Hundreds of artists are lining up to ask whether they can contribute to Izzy Wheels, all because they believe in the message of the brand: that artistry, fashion and self-expression should be accessible to all.
It’s a vision that everyone can get behind, but it’s worth remembering that none of this would have happened without the smart business minds of the Keane sisters, who were both named on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list this year.
“I founded Izzy Wheels when I was just 22, and I am proud to be a young woman and director of my own company,” says Ailbhe. “Success can’t happen without hard work, but if you’re passionate, driven and excited by what you do, nothing should get in the way of that. No matter what age you are we need to support and inspire each other.”
Age is on Izzy and Ailbhe’s side, and it was their intuitive use of social media that, in 2017, landed them on the official Instagram account story – reaching more than 226 million people – and becoming the first Irish people to take the honour.
“We grew our entire business on social media,” says Ailbhe. “There are a lot of powerful movements across social media at the moment which are inspiring social change. We use our own platform to smash stigmas, empower and educate people.”
Wheels in the wild
“I still get butterflies when I spot people out in the wild wearing their Izzy Wheels,” Ailbhe says. “It’s very emotional for me and it’s why I love my job so much.”
We will achieve equality when the same opportunities and freedoms are afforded to everyone. The freedom to express yourself is one important part of this. Izzy Wheels has brought colour and style to a device so often stigmatised.
We’re all colourful, bright, individual people, and Ailbhe and Izzy Keane are the visionaries leading the movement to bring fashion, self-expression, and joy, to all.