The makers of Barbie are releasing a new line of wheelchair covers for adults, children, and, of course, their dolls. These covers help customize the wheels of a wheelchair, giving the user another avenue to show their style. It is certainly a boundary-breaking product, but where exactly did it come from and why is Barbie involved?
Representation For All
In the United States, one in every 700 babies is born with Down syndrome, which is about 6,000 babies every year. Across the world, there are children born with and living with various disabilities who will come to know the struggle of inclusivity that people without disabilities can hardly relate to. One big challenge, especially for children, is being represented by the toys they play with.
This is where Barbie’s newest venture comes into play. In the United Kingdom, Barbie is teaming up with a sister-owned company called Izzy Wheels that designs and sells custom-made wheelchair spoke covers. Ailbhe and Izzy Keane started the company as a college project in 2015 with the purpose of making a person’s wheelchair a true reflection of their personality rather than just a tool they need to use.
The inspiration for the company and its mission came from Izzy herself. Izzy was born with Spina Bifida and is paralyzed from the waist down. Ailbhe observed that her sister’s wheelchair was the first thing that people noticed about her, but she knew that Izzy’s plain wheelchair wasn’t a great representation of her personality. To give her sister the opportunity to express her individuality through her wheelchair, Ailbhe started designing a variety of stylish wheel covers.
“Our mission with Izzy Wheels is to challenge negative associations with wheelchairs and let users celebrate their individuality by personalising their source of independence. We want to show the world that wheelchairs can be so much more than a medical device, they can be a piece of artistic self-expression,” Ailbhe said.
Izzy sees their company’s covers as a way to help make a person’s wheelchair into a welcoming object rather than something that is only functional. She says that having stylish wheel covers that match her outfit or represent her interests easily addresses the fact that she uses a wheelchair and helps to open conversation with other people.
Based on the success of the sisters’ enterprise, other people who use wheelchairs feel the same way. Izzy Wheels has been featured in well-known publications such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and TechCrunch. Izzy and Ailbhe were also the first Irish people that Instagram asked to take over their official account. With 40% of consumers preferring a business that engages with customers on social media, the ability to post on the official account of one of the most popular social media platforms was a major accomplishment for the Keane sisters. The young women reached an even more exciting milestone when they were named in Forbes “30 under 30” list of up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
A Collaboration With Barbie
The latest achievement for Izzy and Ailbhe is working with Barbie to create a line of wheelchair covers inspired by 60 years of the iconic doll. To help create the limited-edition collection, Izzy Wheels teamed up with four British artists and designers. Their collaborators included London-based inclusive fashion label ART SCHOOL as well as graphic artists Annu Kilpeläinen, Malika Favre, and Hattie Stewart.
Stewart, an artist and illustrator, said that her design was inspired by Swarovski jewelry and the concept of transforming a wheelchair into an accessory. She also created her cover with the goal of empowering girls by including bold patterns, classic Barbie graphics from the 1960s and 1970s, and diverse characters.
The Autumn/Winter 2019 line of Barbie dolls certainly reflects the inclusion that the Izzy Wheels collaboration focuses on. The AW19 line includes dolls with a variety of different hair textures, ethnicities, hair colors, and body types. According to the Instagram post showing all of the new Barbies, the company is striving to be more reflective of the diverse world that children see around them every day.
Of course, this inclusive world wouldn’t be complete with a Barbie that looks like Izzy. The new line features a Barbie who uses a wheelchair, which will be outfitted with miniature versions of the new wheel covers and come with a ramp. There is also a Barbie who has a prosthetic leg in the AW19 line. Just like how seeing a character on T.V. with a lisp or stutter could help build the confidence of kids who are among the 5% of children entering first grade with noticeable speech disorders, playing with a Barbie that uses a wheelchair can bolster the self-esteem of kids everywhere who use mobility aids. When kids see themselves reflected in the toys they play with and the media they watch, they’ll realize that they belong as much as anyone else.
That’s precisely what Izzy is excited about. She said that growing up she cherished having the “Share a Smile” Becky doll, which was the only Barbie doll who used a wheelchair until this most recent line of dolls.
“Having a Barbie in a wheelchair meant so much to me as a little girl, and I love that a whole new generation of kids with disabilities can play with a Barbie that represents them,” Izzy said.