Mission & History
Our mission is to create and produce performances that deepen understanding of the disability experience. We tell stories in which disability itself is not the focus of the conflict, but rather forms the landscape on which universal issues are debated onstage.
Full inclusion and integration of disability both on and off Canadian stages;
a barrier-free diverse performing arts world that reflects the real world and all of its people.
- Authenticity in representing disability;
- Innovation in content, presentation and/or technology;
- Inclusiveness in working with professionally trained artists with disabilities;
- Advocating for equity on behalf of performers, backstage workers and patrons with disabilities.
It was in 1990, during his third semester in theatre school, that James Sanders became quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury. After a year of rehab, James returned to school to complete his training; the barriers he faced in terms of society’s attitudes towards a person with a disability were more difficult to navigate than the physical barriers.
In 1998, James graduated as valedictorian from Simon Fraser University with a BFA in theatre. In 2003, Realwheels was founded and together with long-time friend and theatre professional Bob Frazer, they set out to change perceptions: by performing a play that had nothing to do with James’ physicality. Kevin Kerr was invited to write a unique work for them, and some of Vancouver’s finest theatre professionals, including Roy Surette and Sven Johnson.
This collaboration led to Realwheels’s first production, SKYDIVE.
SKYDIVE was a national hit, and is now regarded as an important and innovative contribution to disability arts, having impacted perceptions and championed opportunities for artists with disabilities.
James left Realwheels in 2014 to focus on other projects.
The company continued to flourish under the artistic direction of Rena Cohen. During Rena’s leadership we expanded our community practice, fostered the development of a growing number of emerging artists with disabilities, and cultivated meaningful dialogue between artists/community members with disabilities and non-disabled artists. Under Rena’s direction Realwheels received accolades and awards both for our professional theatre productions and excellence in accessibility.
Rena also dreamed up english Canada’s first-ever customized actor training program for PWD. She oversaw the development of its curriculum and operational plan, and raised funds to ensure the launch of Realwheels Acting Academy’s three-year pilot program.
After 10 outstanding years with the company, Artistic Director Rena Cohen announced she’d be moving on from her position. (CLICK to read public statement)
Realwheels remains committed to creating and producing innovative professional works that reflect our values. We’re involved in vital community projects, and we’re taking the lead on projects that increase equality of access for persons with disability, both locally and nationally.
We continue to be an integrated community. Disability isn’t binary with a simple on or off. Many of us exist somewhere along the spectrum; we are all challenged on some level. We’re interested in how those challenges are managed, as well as how to develop as a broader community to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities.
Please click the links below to read our 2020/2021 Annual Report
Realwheels Annual Report (PDF Version)
Realwheels Annual Report (Accessible Word Version)