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‘If you can’t stand up, stand out’: These wheelchairs are works of art

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(NEW YORK) — “If you can’t stand up, stand out!”

That’s the motto of Izzy Wheels, a company founded by Ailbhe and Izzy Keane that sells a range of stylish wheel covers for wheelchairs which transform the medical device into a piece of fashion and self-expression.

“Izzy Wheels was inspired by my sister Izzy, who was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed from her waist down,” Ailbhe Keane told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “Growing up, she found it frustrating and upsetting that there was nothing available for her to personalize her wheelchair. Her mechanical chair was the first thing that people noticed about her, but it wasn’t a reflection of her bright and bubbly personality. She has a very positive relationship with her wheelchair and sees her disability as a major part of her identity.”

Keane studied art and design in college, and in 2016 created a range of colorful, fashionable, artistic wheel covers so that her sister’s chair expressed her individual style.

That college project, Keane said, “went completely viral.”

“Suddenly we were getting messages of support from people all over the world,” Keane said. “After seeing how much Izzy loved the designs, and the confidence boost they gave her, we came up with more of them.”

Izzy Wheels launched an online store in 2017 and began collaborating with designers to create limited-edition wheel cover designs.

The company has created collections with 50 different artists and fashion designers and has a waiting list of more than 900 designers who want to design for Izzy Wheels.

“The collaborations with the high profile designers shines a very positive light on disability representation and bridge the gap between disability and fashion,” Ailbhe Keane said.

The company, based in Ireland, now sells in 35 countries, with 60 percent of its sales coming from the U.S.

“Disability fashion is one of the most underserved areas of design,” Ailbhe Keane said.

Izzy agreed.

“Wheelchairs have looked the same as they did 100 years ago, and as a person who loves to look stylish, I have always felt that my wheelchair has gotten in the way of that,” said Izzy Keane.

Now, she picks out a different wheel cover every day.

“Wheelchair users are often very accustomed to getting looks of pity from people who don’t have any prior knowledge or experience of disability,” she said. “It was absolutely crazy that the very first day I wore my Izzy Wheels — people no longer looked at me with pity! Strangers were complimenting me on how good my wheelchair looked.”

The customers of Izzy Wheels are called Spokes People and the company shares their individual stories with followers. Izzy Wheels is about more than fashion.

“We are creating more than colorful wheel covers, we are creating a movement,” Keane said. “When a user is wearing colorful Izzy Wheels they are a conversation starter. They act as an icebreaker and address the wheelchair in a positive way. Izzy gets compliments on her wheels every day from strangers so people engage with her in situations where they otherwise would not have.”

Izzy said fashion designers and retailers should take notice.

“[The wheel covers] reinforces the message to the world at large that diversity is beautiful,” she said. “It makes me so happy the strides that fashion publications and retailers have made to give a more accurate representation of society in ad campaigns by including people of lots of different shapes, sizes, genders, skin tones and it makes me especially happy when I see someone with a disability being featured.”

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