Monday 24 July 2017

'People smile now instead of looking at me with pity' - Sisters turn wheelchairs into a fashion statement

"If you can’t stand up, stand out"

Ailbhe and Izzy Keane of Izzy Wheels. Photo: Conor McCabe (IWA Magazine)
Ailbhe and Izzy Keane of Izzy Wheels. Photo: Conor McCabe (IWA Magazine)
Izzy Keane. Photo: Conor McCabe
Jane Newland designed spoke guard. Pic: Izzy Wheels
Marylou Faure designed spoke guards. Pic: Izzy Wheels
Karol Banach designed spoke guards. Pic: Izzy Wheels

Sasha Brady

Two Galway sisters have created a successful business by breaking down the stigmas associated with wheelchairs.

Ailbhe Keane (24) is the founder and creative director of Izzy Wheels, a company that creates customised spoke guards for wheelchairs.

It started off as a college project when she was studying Visual Communication in Dublin's NCAD. When asked to create something that would benefit the lives of people with long-term lifestyle health conditions, she was inspired by sister Izzy.

Izzy (20), the brand ambassador, was born a spiral condition called Spina Bifida. She is paralysed from the waist down and requires the use of a wheelchair.

"I wanted Izzy to feel more confident in her wheelchair, it's the first thing that people notice about her and it doesn't reflect her personality at all," Ailbhe told Independent.ie.

So she set up a college project where she designed customised spoke guards that could match wheelchair users' personalities. But the project has now become a successful business and through it, the Keane sisters have been challenging people's notions about wheelchairs.

Izzy Keane. Photo: Conor McCabe
Izzy Keane. Photo: Conor McCabe

"When someone meets you and they see the spoke guards they can discover something about your personality and it just opens up conversation. It immediately addresses the wheelchair and there's no awkwardness there," said Ailbhe.

"We're on a mission to make people with disabilities stand out for all the right reasons. When passers-by see people in a wheelchair they feel bad for them and wheelchair users hate that sense of pity.

For Isabel, a wheelchair is something that should be celebrated and fun because it's given her freedom and independence.

"My wheelchair isn't a negative thing. It's a positive thing," she said. "It gives me my independence and freedom. If I didn't have my wheelchair I couldn't get around.

Jane Newland designed spoke guard. Pic: Izzy Wheels
Jane Newland designed spoke guard. Pic: Izzy Wheels

"I've always had a positive relationship with my disability and my wheelchair. It doesn't stop me from doing anything. It enables me. Most wheelchair users I know feel that way but I want everyone to feel that way."

A set of Izzy Wheels spoke guards cost €99 and are attached by straps so that they can be interchangeable. Interest in the product started to grow when Ailbhe shared her designs on social media. Curious customers were quick to contact her requesting their own designs.

"I started to take photos and created an Instagram account to share them and it took off instantly. I got emails from parents around the world inquiring where they could get their hands on these spoke guards.

"It seemed like such an obvious idea but one that had been overlooked. The only other spoke guards available were designed by hospitals and not with care and love. They were also hugely expensive and permanent fixtures. Our idea was to create more affordable ones that you could swap and change."

Marylou Faure designed spoke guards. Pic: Izzy Wheels
Marylou Faure designed spoke guards. Pic: Izzy Wheels

A website was set up last September and it has taken off in a way that neither girl expected. It received €15,000 backing from Enterprise Ireland's New Frontiers Development Programme, as well as business mentoring and workspace.

In April, Izzy Wheels won Accenture's Leaders of Tomorrow Award and a place on the National Digital Research Centre LaunchPad. It also placed second at the AIB Start-up Academy in the same month.

Izzy and Ailbhe Keane of Izzy Wheels. Pic: Conor McCabe for IWA Magazine
Izzy and Ailbhe Keane of Izzy Wheels. Pic: Conor McCabe for IWA Magazine

And business is booming across the Atlantic ever since the company was featured in Silicon Valley bible, TechCruncher magazine. Business Insider created one-and-a-half minute video about Izzy Wheels and it immediately went viral, racking up 2m views in 24 hours and 11m views in one week.

Instagram bosses were quick to spot the hype surrounding Izzy Wheels and asked the company to take over their official Instagram story for 24 hours last Friday.

"We got contacted by Instagram's head office. They said 'we love what you're doing, do you want to be our story for 24 hours?' Of course we said yes. We took over their account yesterday and we tripled our amount of followers in just one day," said Ailbhe.

Karol Banach designed spoke guards. Pic: Izzy Wheels
Karol Banach designed spoke guards. Pic: Izzy Wheels

"We woke up to hundreds and hundreds of emails. It's crazy but we're absolutely delighted. We've had artists and designers contact us to ask can they get involved. It means we now have the best quality of work available to us. It's really exciting."

The Keanes found a gap in the market and owned that problem, creating a successful business in a short space of time. But they also credit their success to the story behind their brand.

"People can really relate to to it because it's a story of two sisters," said Ailbhe. "Anyone with a sibling will understand that bond. Also anyone who knows someone with a disability can relate.

"Our tagline really resonates with people too: 'If you can’t stand up, stand out', it's a strong and positive message."

The Keane sisters have released two collections since launching last September and have donated some of the profits to charity. Proceeds from their first collection to the Irish Wheelchair Association. The summer collection, wich launched in June with a line-up of Irish and international artists including Maser and James Earley, donated proceeds to Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland.

A third collection is on the way and the girls are currently hiring new staff as they look to expand their team. They also have plans to design a wheelchair accessories collection that, like their spoke guards, have a stylish and practical function.

"We're looking at accessories like bags, umbrellas, cuffs and more," said Izzy. "Right now I can't wear a bag on my back when I'm in my wheelchair because I can't reach it. It's also uncomfortable. So we're looking at ways around that. We've lots of ideas."

Ailbhe, who is based in Dublin, recently ran a spoke guard design workshop for children, where they could create their own masterpieces.

The girls don't mind being busy, it's a "wonderful complaint to have" and they're keen to spread their message that "wheelchairs are a good thing".

"I'm so used to people looking at [my wheelchair]," said Izzy. "But as soon as I put my bespoke spoke guards on and went outside the door people started smiling at me, rather than giving me that accidental look of pity. I've had people come up to me and compliment my chair.

"I never want people to feel awkward about my wheelchair. I don't want people to pretend it's not there. With the spoke guards they can address it in a way that makes them feel comfortable. It's a really good thing."

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