Realwheels Theatre began as a professional theatre company with a mandate to create and produce performances that deepen understanding of disability, but they didn’t stop there.
The company expanded into community engagement work and then again into ancillary projects that address problematic barriers to people with disabilities.
Most recently, Realwheels launched an actor training academy customized for people with disabilities.
When the pandemic hit, the company pivoted to create a podcast series called 22 Percent, which explores the experiences of people living with disability.
“Twenty two per cent of all Canadians live with a disability”, says Rena Cohen, former managing artistic director of Realwheels, referring to the podcast name.
But before there was a podcast, there was a play.
Before the podcast
“We were actually developing a new play called Disability Tour Bus says Cohen, “when the pandemic caused us to change direction”.
That play, which takes place on and off a moving city bus, is inspired by stories told by people with disabilities about navigating the city.
“The stories alternate from hilarious to horrifying, and they inspired the concept for the show Disability Tour Bus,” Cohen explains.
Cohen witnessed many of these stories in action with people arriving at rehearsal and talking about what it was like getting there or waiting for the HandyDART to pick them up.
“[The play Disabilty Tour Bus] also aims to show how the quest for disability justice is aligned with other social justice causes,” she says.
Then came the pivot.
“We couldn’t continue developing a roving, site-specific play during the pandemic, so we decided to take some of the material that had surfaced through our creative prompts in developing Disability Tour Bus and redirect them into making a short podcast series,” she says.
“Many stories and issues that weren’t going to be in the play were still important and interesting, and a podcast was a viable and entertaining platform on which to share them. Creating a podcast series kept our creative team together, sharing ideas and developing work until it was safe to gather in person”.
The play is now scheduled to be released in Spring 2023.
“There’s a lot of resilience, strength, and humour in the disability community and I’d like to think that comes across in all of the 22 Percent episodes,” says Cohen.
In three of the episodes, Emily Grace Brook, Caspar Ryan and Alfiya Battalova talk about dating, invisible disabilities and growing up in a place where disability was denied.
“The four episodes are ten minutes long. The three interviewees share personal stories about things that impacted them in a very deep and significant way”, she adds.
The last episode rounds it all out with a parody called Wordability Game Show.
The game show episode contains a number of triggering words in order to have an impact but with a light touch.
“We take the issues seriously but we try not to take ourselves too seriously,” she says.
Importance of words
“Words are important, and so is intention”, says Cohen. “We all make mistakes but when we can acknowledge our mistakes, we can move on”.
It takes a while to get accustomed to not using terms we used casually over the years. For example, the word “wheelchair-bound.”
“A wheelchair is a source of freedom, mobility and independence. Consider the difference in saying a person may be a wheelchair-user, in contrast to calling someone ‘wheelchair-bound’,” Cohen explains. “Fortunately there’s been great progress and much more awareness today than when I began working with the disability community 12 years ago. There’s still a long way to go, but I hope projects like 22 Percent and Disability Tour Bus contribute to making incremental changes”.
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