Disabled Women Make History: Darlene Hunter

Posted by Stephanie Woodward in Life After Paralysis on September 14, 2021 # Disabled Women Make History

To celebrate the achievements of women with disabilities, the Disabled Women Make History blog series is based on interviews with passionate, determined, and talented women with paralysis. Join us monthly as we celebrate these women and acknowledge the complexities, struggles, and accomplishments of women with disabilities.

“I can’t change the fact that I am paralyzed, and to be honest, I don’t want to. I have accomplished far more as a woman in a wheelchair than I ever would have had the opportunity to do if I was walking on two legs.”

Darlene and familyDarlene Hunter talks about sports, disability pride, and mentoring women with disabilities.

“Sports have provided so much to me in my life that I want to pass that on to the next generation of athletes. It allows me to be a mentor and role model and to continue to see the smiles and life changes before my own eyes,” says Darlene Hunter, co-captain of Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team in the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics. “It is the biggest reward that one can receive in life…giving back.

Darlene, who grew up in Michigan, didn’t start playing basketball until she was 19 when she went to college at the University of Arizona. She was originally focused on wheelchair racing, which she started when she was seven years old. I started wheelchair racing in Michigan, where I grew up. Michigan had a great wheelchair racing community and Darlene made the USA World Team in 1999 that went to New Zealand and again in 2001 in Lille, France, for track/marathon. She chose to attend the University of Arizona for their adapted sports program in track, but in her second year, the school wanted to start a women’s wheelchair basketball team, so she said “yes” when she was asked to join the team.

“It was great to be a part of a team and have so many empowering women working together not just on the court, but off the court and teaching about life with a disability,” Darlene shared when talking about the switch from the individual sport of racing to the team sport of basketball.

Darlene at basketball campNow, not only is Darlene an elite athlete leading Team USA at the Paralympic games, but she’s also a coach for the Dallas Junior Wheelchair Mavericks and a mom to her dog, Marshmallow, and her cat, Quinn. If that was not enough, she is an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she created her own class, Disability & Social Work, and she works with Texas Regional Para Sport to get more children and adults into Para Sports throughout Texas.

Think her resume stops there? Think again. Darlene also sits on eight boards and committees, and most of them are focused on creating more opportunities for individuals with disabilities in sport and in the community. She’s an advocate for policy changes within sports organizations. Within the community, she writes grants to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities to have the equipment, programming, and events, and she creates opportunities for people to compete in sport through track meets, camps, and more.

Darlene’s greatest accomplishment is creating a Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Camp that is completely free for women that attend. She partners with the University of Texas Arlington to provide the space and dorms, and she fundraises all the money to pay for the camp. Women who attend only need to cover their travel costs – after that, everything is free. It’s the only camp of its kind in the United States and she started this camp six years ago because there was no place for women to just play with and against women.

“I wanted to invest in the women youth and show them all the possibilities in their life like others have shown me while growing up. I think it is so important for people with disabilities to see that they can have a family, career, drive a car, make a stance, and empower others around you,” Darlene explained. “I can’t change the fact that I am paralyzed, and to be honest, I don’t want to. I have accomplished far more as a woman in a wheelchair than I ever would have had the opportunity to do if I was walking on two legs.”

Darlene’s drive to support women with disabilities in accomplishing their goals is partly inspired by all of the incredible women mentors who have supported her. From her mom, who pushed Darlene to be independent and instilled her drive to be the best person she could be to Patricia Ford, the first woman Darlene met in wheelchair racing when she was seven years old, who showed Darlene that she could achieve anything as a disabled woman. In basketball, Darlene had even more mentors, including Hope Lewellen and Amy Verst, who helped Darlene early on in her wheelchair basketball career, and Patty Cisneros, who Darlene says is “the definition of a strong woman and empowers all women.”

As a strong woman herself, Darlene is serving as a role model to all girls and women with disabilities in her role as co-captain of the Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team at the Tokyo Paralympic games. She’s honored to be serving as co-captain with Natalie Schneider.Darlene on the track

“I think we make an amazing team,” Darlene explained. “I respect her and look up to her so much. This will be her 4th Paralympics, and she is a mother of 3. The two of us together make a great team and leaders for our team. I love that we get to invest in each member of the team individually and as a whole. We get to not only mentor them on the court but help show by example what USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball legacy means. This team is made up of moms, doctors, activists, and world-changers. These are big shoes to fill. As co-captain, I feel extremely blessed to be recognized in this way in my sport and on the Paralympic stage.”

Being co-captain is also especially meaningful for Darlene because she was cut seven times before ever making the team. Because of this, her advice for other women and girls with disabilities is simple yet strong:

“Never give up! I was cut seven times before making the 2010 World Championship Team for Women’s Wheelchair Basketball. At age 39, I am playing the best basketball of my life, or at least that is what my coaches are telling me. I continue to improve and learn from those around me, and I continue to push myself not only on the court but off the court. Keep developing and pushing yourself.”

Stephanie Woodward is an attorney and Executive Director of Disability EmpowHer Network, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls and women with disabilities. Stephanie is passionate about seeking justice for marginalized communities - and has an arrest record to show for it. As a proud disabled woman and civil rights activist, Stephanie is committed to bringing more women and girls with disabilities to the forefront through mentoring and activism.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.