Izzy and Ailbhe Keane used to love playing dress up when they were younger. Izzy, who has spina bifida, uses a wheelchair and she and her sister would decorate the chair for holidays and birthdays.
Now, the two sisters from Ireland are helping other wheelchair users express themselves that way.
Ailbhe, who is now 27, went to The National College of Art and Design in Dublin and was allowed to do anything she wanted as a final project one year. She decided to create wheel covers for her sister's chair.
The pair put photos of the colorful wheels online, and the project started snowballing. "It just went totally viral and we started getting messages from artists and designers from all over the world, who wanted to create wheels for our project," Ailbhe told CBS News.
She started enlisting artists to create wheels for Izzy and her friends, and the project kept growing. In 2016 she decided to start a company, Izzy Wheels.
Now, Izzy Wheels enlists about 20 artists a year, and sells designer wheel covers globally.
For Ailbhe, Izzy Wheels is a full-time job. Izzy, who is now 23 and in college, serves as the brand's ambassador. Izzy Wheels has been featured in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Oprah Magazine and TechCrunch and both sisters were featured in Forbes' 30 Under 30 issue in 2018.
Ailbhe said the whole idea is to give wheelchair users a way to express themselves the way Izzy did when they decorated her chair as kids. "It really just changed how people interact with Izzy," Ailbhe said. "So, rather than her wheelchair being something that people might be nervous about...it immediately turns the wheelchair from something like a medical device into a friendly object."
The company posts photos of their customers, who they call their "spokespeople" on social media, where they have gained a large following. Izzy Wheels has even partnered with Mattel to create matching wheelchair covers for Barbies and kids.
"That's something that Izzy never had growing up, was a toy that she felt represented her," Ailbhe said. "The sooner we can educate kids about disabilities, just the more normal it becomes. And it becomes less intimidating."
"And if you can see the wheelchair as something fun, something cool from when you're young, I mean, I think people will just grow up a lot more open-minded," she continued.
Ailbhe said Izzy Wheels helps kids make their wheelchairs fun and helps adults make their wheelchairs fashionable. "For Izzy, she's just a regular person who uses a wheelchair. And she's a regular person who loves fashion. And it just needs to be normalized," she said. "And if our platform can help do that, that's something that's really, really important to us."
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