Why two Irish sisters made the Forbes '30 Under 30' list and caught the eye of designer Orla Kiely
Because Izzy Keane was born with spina bifida, she has to use a wheelchair. Izzy and her sister Ailbhe tell Joy Orpen that they have founded a creative business to encourage meaningful conversations around disability
Isabel (Izzy) and Ailbhe Keane must be two of the brightest, funkiest and most entrepreneurial sisters in Ireland right now. Combining their talents has resulted in an eruption of creative energy, which is in the process of transforming the world of disability - with kaleidoscopic consequences.
This journey began 21 years ago, when Izzy was born with spina bifida. This was caused by a defect in the neural tube in the first few weeks after her conception. This ultimately resulted in her spine and spinal cord being damaged, so Izzy has never been able to walk. But don't imagine, even for a second, that she allows this to stop her doing anything on her personal radar.
On the contrary, it only makes her even more determined to achieve her goals. Fortunately for her, she also has an amazingly creative sister who is completely in tune with her ambitions and aspirations. So much so, they are in fact, very best friends.
Izzy and Ailbhe grew up in Taylor's Hill in Galway, with an older brother and sister. Their mother, Margaret, started out as a school teacher. Later, even though she had a young brood underfoot, she qualified as a solicitor. She then joined her husband, Paddy, in his law practice. Clearly their can-do attitude has rubbed off on their offspring.
"Having spina bifida means I have reduced sensation from the waist down," explains Izzy. "There are various levels of severity. Some people with this condition can walk independently; some need walking aids; while others like me, are in a wheelchair."
Ailbhe was four years old when Izzy was born. "I remember being so excited that I was getting a baby sister. And later, I was envious because she would go to Enable Ireland and get things to help her move about; things that I knew I couldn't have. One of those was a device that we nicknamed her 'yellow car'. I thought it was so much fun. I was always crazy about colour. So I was always decorating Izzy's wheelchairs. At Christmas, I'd put baubles and lights all over it."
Izzy's schooling went like clockwork, thanks to her own abilities, hard work, and the support she got from special needs assistants and from the other kids. She's currently in her second year at the National University of Ireland, Galway, studying French, sociology and politics. "This is the most accessible place I've ever been," she says enthusiastically.
She adds that it's important that other people who have little experience of disability feel able to ask her questions. "People tend to skirt around the issues. But I'm totally open to people talking to me directly. I'd rather that, than they make assumptions," Izzy says.
When Ailbhe finished secondary school, she enrolled at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin. "I was drawn to illustration and to making things," she says. "Our mother is a wonderful gardener - our garden is full of colour. My grandmother was brilliant at sewing and at making things, while my dad's mother was a marvellous, self-taught painter." So, it's no mystery as to where these dynamic sisters get their creative talents from.
In her final year at NCAD, Ailbhe and her fellow students were asked to choose one of a number of themes for a major project. She chose, "to empower the lives of people living with a long-term, lifestyle-related health condition".
"Straight away, I knew this was for me," Ailbhe says. "I looked closely at Izzy's chair. I knew I wasn't going to change its function in any way. She has always had a very positive relationship with it. But the wheelchair itself just didn't reflect that ethos, or her vibrant personality. It was mechanical, boring and intimidating. I thought there might be a way of bridging that gap."
Ailbhe soon came up with the idea of giving the wheels a makeover by designing covers for them. "I started with different colours. Then I started matching the colours to what Izzy was wearing. Suddenly, people who would never normally mention anything about the wheelchair, would stop her and say, 'Oh my god, I love your wheels'. It started a whole conversation."
Izzy is in full agreement. "It was incredible. As a wheelchair user, you get used to people feeling sorry for you," she says. "But as soon as I put on the wheel covers, they would engage with me. And that's when I could convey my message of positivity and the fact that I don't want my disability defining who I am, in any way."
Ailbhe says they are both stunned that the business has taken off so quickly. "It happened very organically. I put my designs on display for my [final year] art show. Then I came up with the tag line, 'If you can't stand up, stand out'."
Following an appearance on Nationwide, Enterprise Ireland stepped in to give the sisters guidance. "They taught me how to turn the project into a business," says Ailbhe.
Having realised the huge potential of her idea, Ailbhe and Izzy (who works part-time in the enterprise) invited other designers to collaborate. Orla Kiely, James Earley, Maser and Helen Steele have all delved into their colour palettes to bring their wheel designs to life. There is a long list of other artists willing to participate in the project.
Right now, Izzy Wheels are being sold in 35 countries. The company has already won 10 national awards. The sisters were finalists in the Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow Award 2017, and were named in the Forbes '30 Under 30' list of promising entrepreneurs. So there is no doubt that in business and economic terms, Izzy Wheels is a huge success. But that doesn't tell the whole story of the company's core value.
"The wheel covers are not only beautiful to look at, they're a most wonderful key to spreading the message to people who are curious about disability," says Izzy. "It's very important that people learn about disability from people who have a disability."
Ailbhe takes that a step further. "Disability representation has been missing from the world of fashion and in mainstream media. We want to change all that," she says.
And they're clearly succeeding. With a spread in British Vogue published earlier this year, and a short documentary about to be featured early in August on BBC Three's Amazing Humans series, there's clearly no stopping this dynamic and most colourful duo.
Izzy Wheels will be exhibiting at the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland Motor Show and Conference on Friday 28 and Saturday 29 September at the RDS, Dublin. Entry is free, see ddmotorshow.ie
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