These Two Sisters Reinvented the Wheelchair

These Two Sisters Reinvented the Wheelchair

by Evan Ross Katz

I'm often thinking back to an "aha" moment I had during a 2018 interview with model/actor/activist Nyle DiMarco. "Most of the time during an interview," he explained, "they always ask 'What's hard about being deaf? Did you have struggles in school? Did people bully you?' And I'm like 'No, my life was perfect, are you kidding me? I went to a deaf school. I come from a deaf family. I never had barriers. I had access to language, love, communication. I had everything." After that, I began to understand ableism as not just outright discrimination towards disabled people, but the assumption that to be disabled meant a person intrisically felt othered.

I knew I wanted to learn more about Izzy Wheels co-founder Izzy Keane, an icon in the disability community, after sensing a similar worldview to DiMarco's. One that had opened up my understanding of disability not as a limitation, but as a possibility. "I have always had a really positive relationship with my disability and my wheelchair to be honest," Izzy tells me, saying she's never seen her wheelchair as a medical device or anything remotely negative.

Keane was born with a condition called Spina Bifida, which translates to "split spine" in Latin, resulting in reduced feeling and movement from the waist down. "To me, my chair is a symbol of freedom and my enabler," she says. "I've been a wheelchair user for my entire life and I'm really glad that my relationship with my chair has stayed the same from my childhood right into my teens and adulthood."

Some of Izzy's earliest memories are centered around her sister Ailbhe decorating her wheelchair, using it as a blank canvas. Their strong bond as sisters and friends eventually led them to co-found Izzy Wheels, a Dublin-based start-up that manufactures and produces stylish wheel covers with the motto "If you can't stand up, stand out!" They've since made Forbes's 30 Under 30, been featured in British Vogue and Good Morning America and collaborated with Barbie herself.

Growing up, Izzy tore through fashion magazines in the hope of seeing someone that looked like her. "As someone who loves fashion, I found it frustrating and upsetting," she says. Beyond that, she saw a missed opportunity. "It was very obvious that all of the major clothing brands were missing out on a huge market of people who, like me, are as eager as anyone else to wear clothes and accessories that make them look good and feel great."

Ailbhe picked up on this too. "I've always noticed that my sister's wheelchair didn't reflect her bright and bubbly personality." So for her final year art project at The National College of Art and Design, Ailbhe decided to design a range of colorful interchangeable wheel covers for Izzy's chairs that matched her exuberant style. She worked closely with her sister to get the material of the wheel covers just right: lightweight, waterproof and scratch-proof. Together they decided on velcro straps as the best way to fasten the wheel covers to the wheels figuring that even if someone had reduced functionality of their hands, they would be the easiest and safest method to take them on and off.

"As soon as Izzy put on her wheel covers it immediately changed how people interacted with her," Ailbhe says. "The wheel covers act as an icebreaker and nearly everyone who she met greeted her with 'Oh wow, I love your wheels!'. As a big sister, nothing could be more wonderfully fulfilling than that. It was amazing to see how societies previously negative or awkward perceptions of wheelchairs could be changed in such a simple way."

Ailbhe was awarded first class honors for the project. After a television segment about her project went viral, things began to speed up. But with no budget for advertising or photoshoots, everything had to be done with ingenuity. "Each month if we made any sales I would invest the money straight back into the business and use it to make the packaging nicer and save up to do photoshoots with professional photographers," she says.

There were plenty of naysayers in the beginning. "When I started my journey as a young woman in business I was advised to 'tone down the colorful clothing if I wanted to be taken more seriously and look more professional'. I chose not to listen and did things my own way. Our colourful way of dressing has become a really important part of our brand. We didn't try to fit the mold of what a business person should wear and look like, we created our own version."

Izzy also wanted to reframe an often-perpetuated narrative of the doom and gloom caused by disability. That hasn't been the case for Izzy ever, and she wanted to project her story and how common it can be among disabled folks with limited exposure to platforms that allow them to discuss it and dispel misunderstandings. In addition to giving wheelchair users a new way to express themselves, Izzy Wheels uses its social media channels to highlight users who send in photos and personal stories about their lives growing up with disability or what it's like to acquire a disability. Each week Izzy Wheels has a "Spokes Person Of The Week." "The stories are incredibly empowering and are very educational for both people with disabilities and able-bodied people. It champions disability positivity in a beautiful new way," Izzy says.

Their biggest turning point as a business came in 2017 when a video they made went viral and caught the attention of Instagram. They became the first Irish people to take over Instagram's official account. "Thousands of messages from artists began flooding in saying how much they wanted to create wheel covers for Izzy Wheels. That's when we started doing designer collaborations and that became a really key part of our brand. We've now worked with over 80 designers including Camille Walala, Okudart, Malika Favre, Morag Myerscough, Orla Kiely, Maser, and many more design geniuses." 80 collaborations in less than five years? H&M could never!

But for the sisters, success is more than Instagram followers or a dollar sign. It's about setting a new industry standard for future generations of designers, ones who can infuse their lived experiences into their work — and have it be better in doing so. "I've grown to be very familiar with the feeling of being totally overwhelmed in a clothes shop when it seems like all the clothes won't fit on your body due to a curve in your spine or the fact that you're constantly sitting down," Izzy says. "My clothes become all bunched up at the back from me sitting, my sleeves and elbows get filthy from my wheels, I cannot carry things in my pockets without everything falling out, my shoes are very difficult to get on, my trousers need to be loose and the list goes on. Everyone who uses a wheelchair will be able to relate!"

These may seem like small things, she notes, but when they are considered and adjusted they truly make life a lot easier. "If you have an idea, or if you really like a brand, reach out and tell them your needs. You can be the one to make the change happen."

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photography: Sarah Doyle