Ailbhe Keane started creating trendy spoke protectors for her sister Isabel who uses a wheelchair. Currently, they finally have a proper company.
Ailbhe feels that growing up she was always decorating her sisters wheelchair for holidays and events in an attempt to use her “design skills to make her (sister) feel better about her wheelchair”. From there Ailbhe realised there was a business opportunity in decorating healthcare equipment, with her college project enabling her to flesh out her business idea.
After Galway native Ailbhe Keane was in her final year analyzing visual communications in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, she had been provided a project brief to think of something which would enable the lives of somebody living with a long-term health problem or condition.
Immediately her thoughts turned to her sister Isabel who she has always been close with, “Isabel was born with spina bifida which means she is paralysed from the waist down,” states Ailbhe.
Thus Izzy Wheels was first born.
The unique combination of Isabel as a wheelchair user understanding what needs improving and Ailbhe as a designer being able to problem-solve and produce some creative answers creates a unique value proposition for the business. Initially they both realised that the covers of the wheels were just like a blank canvas that could be easily decorated.
Ailbhe generated an Instagram account and posted photographs of this customised spoke guards and of Isabel modelling the brakes covers on her own wheelchair and was astounded by the interest. “It just took off overnight. I started getting messages from wheelchair users all over the world asking where they could buy a set of Izzy Wheels.” The response has been from both able-bodied people and wheelchair people leading Ailbhe to believe that “everyone can appreciate something that looks good.”
For Isabel, the spoke protectors include some style and fun for her look. She often matches her handbag or shoes into her ensemble, she can now incorporate her look further with Izzy Wheels. Izzy loves to dress colourfully and the unique spoke guard covers allow her to do this without the risk of the covers clashing with the rest of her outfit.
With approximately 40,000 users in Ireland, 640,000 in The UK and about 14.5 million throughout Europe and the United States, the possible market for the merchandise is enormous.
” Wheelchairs basically look the same today as they did 100 years ago and people are crying out for innovative ideas,” indicates Ailbhe. “Design and disability is an area which really has been overlooked and for us wheels are the best place to start in helping people feel good about themselves.”
For Isabel, the spoke guards represent a means of showing her Wheelchair is a positive thing instead of something negative. She believes the idea of fashionable and removable spoke guards is amazing because it gives her an effective means of showing the world that wheelchairs aren’t a sign of incapacity and that a wheelchair is an empowering device, not a disabling one.
Having graduated with first class honours from NCAD last Year, Ailbhe enlisted the help of a web design agency to start her online shop selling Izzy Wheels. The wheels are produced in Ireland of a durable watertight plastic substance; the guards can easily be secured onto the spokes of this wheel and match any size wheels to almost any manual wheelchair.
Presently, on the Izzy Wheels site, there’s a restricted edition set by some leading illustrators and designers. The Irish Wheelchair Association requested Izzy Wheels to be included within their current fashion show. Ailbhe believed that this was a fantastic chance to acquire more designers involved so she requested eight of Ireland’s best known illustrators and designers whether they would be interested. She was blown away by the response and also the thoughtfulness, time and love every one of them put into the series.
The Izzy Wheels Inside this brand new ‘Roll Models’ series, ‘ are €139 (Euro), while look at the primary collection will pay a price of €99 per pair. For each pair of Roll Model Izzy Wheels sold, a percentage of this cash will go to the Irish Wheelchair Association.
The artists that were contacted were really excited to get on board. Izzy Wheels have got some very big names included and have had lots more illustrators and artists get in contact that are eager to get involved.
What began as a school project has become a company with a custom craft e-commerce site and enormous possible influence which has not gone unnoticed. The brand was showcased on RTÉ’s Nationwide within the schedule of National Women’s Enterprise Day, it has also been nominated for 2 awards from the Irish Design Institute at 2016. Ailbhe has also gained a spot-on Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme that is now supplying office space for her in Dublin in addition to financing and business mentoring.
“As a designer it is a dream to be able to come up with designs that really impact on people’s lives,” states Ailbhe, whilst brand ambassador Isabel states that it’s a personal objective of hers to encourage more individuals to become familiar with the reality that they’re wheelchair users.
“That is why Izzy Wheels’ tagline ‘If you can’t stand up, stand out’ really resonates with me,” she stated. “People are going to see our wheelchairs whether we like it or not, so we may as well make them look as attractive as possible.”
Whilst wheelchair spoke covers is the current product being created by Izzy Wheels, what exciting creative applications they find for other medical equipment like walkers, prosthetics and chair alarm systems in the future has everyone guessing.