Monday, June 5, 2017

Designs make wheelchairs a work of art

By Louise Kinross

Izzy Wheels is a business that sells designer spoke guards created by Irish sisters Ailbhe and Izzy Keane. Izzy uses a wheelchair. Growing up, she loved her wheels, but it bothered her that they didn’t reflect her personality and style. When Ailbhe was at design school, she was tasked with creating something to enhance the lives of people of people with disabilities. She and Izzy brainstormed, and came up with art-decorated spoke guards. After Ailbhe graduated, the women created a business. Ailbhe works at Izzy Wheels full time, while Izzy balances her university studies with part-time work there. BLOOM interviewed them both by e-mail.

BLOOM: What bothered you about wheelchair design in the past?

Izzy Keane:
The thing that bothered me before Izzy Wheels was that it was really difficult for me to visually portray to the world the positive relationship I have with my wheelchair. Until I put on my first pair of customizable spoke guards, my wheelchair looked like a lump of metal made in a hospital. To me it has always been so much more than that. I’ve always wanted the opportunity to make my chair look nice, as a sign of respect to it. Now at first glance people know that I love my wheelchair.

BLOOM: Do spoke guards have a function?

Izzy Keane:
Spoke guards protect the wheels of a wheelchair from being damaged and now, thanks to Izzy Wheels, they act as a means to enhance a wheelchair user’s outfit.

BLOOM: How did Ailbhe come up with the idea of creating stylish spoke guards in her art program?

Ailbhe Keane: My sister Isabel has been in a wheelchair all her life and growing up it really frustrated her that she didn't have a way of customizing it. When I was in my final year in the National College of Art and Design, I was offered the opportunity to undertake a self-directed project to 'Enhance the lives of people living with a long term, lifestyle related health condition.’ As soon as I came across it, I knew that it was the perfect opportunity to incorporate my knowledge of my sister’s disability into my work and Izzy Wheels was born! After I graduated from college I decided to turn my project into a business.

BLOOM: What are the spoke guards made of and how is the design put on? Are they for kid and adult chairs?

Ailbhe Keane: The spoke guards are made from plastic with very high quality finishing so that they are very easy to wipe down and clean. They have velcro straps at the back to fasten the spoke guards to the wheels of the wheelchair. Yes, the product comes in three different sizes to cater to children, teenagers and adults.

BLOOM: How do you find artists to design them?

Ailbhe Keane: As a graphic designer myself I have a lot of friends and valuable contacts in the art world. I spend time looking through artists’ previous work to see if I feel that it fits in with the style and ethos of Izzy Wheels. We also get messages from designers all over the world who have seen our work and want to be part of our upcoming collections.

BLOOM: What is the range of cost? Do you ship internationally?

Ailbhe Keane: Yes we ship internationally. The spoke guards come as a pair, one for each wheel and cost between €119 (CDN$180) and €139 (CDN$211).

BLOOM: What is your best-selling design? Does Izzy have a personal favourite?

Izzy Keane: All of our designs are extremely popular. Currently our best seller is the rainbow mandala. Personally, I don’t have a favourite design, as each of the sets coordinates with a different outfit from my extremely colourful wardrobe!

BLOOM: How do you feel differently when you’re out wearing these spoke guards?

Izzy Keane: The spoke guards make me feel extremely confident because when I meet new people my cool wheels are a great conversation starter.

BLOOM: Does the public have a different reaction to your wheelchair when you have the designs on?

Izzy Keane:
Definitely. Having my Izzy Wheels on is like telling people that they don’t have to be afraid to acknowledge my disability. It diminishes any potential awkwardness that another person who is inquisitive about my disability may feel. People now are more at ease when asking questions about my disability.

BLOOM: Is Izzy Wheels a business? I noticed it said you donate to charity.

Ailbhe Keane: Izzy Wheels is a business as well as a social enterprise. We give donations from all of our sales to disability charities around Ireland. The proceeds from our ‘Roll Models Collection' are donated to the Irish Wheelchair Association.

BLOOM: What are your plans for the future? Do you both work at Izzy Wheels full-time?

Ailbhe Keane:
We are creating a global fashion brand for wheelchair users. Our plan is to expand our business worldwide. We already have a lot of exciting surprises being launched in the near future. I work in the business full time and Izzy works in the business part time. She is also in university studying sociology and politics, French and law.

BLOOM: Why are so many disability-related products ugly?

Izzy Keane:
I think the reason why so many disability products are ugly is because when they’re being designed all of the energy is put into their functionality and their aesthetic is forgotten.

Izzy and Ailbhe won first place in the 2017 Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow awards.