Disabled Women Make History: Steph Wheeler

Posted by Stephanie Woodward in Life After Paralysis on June 06, 2022 # Disabled Women Make History

Steph“I believe that we are at our best as coaches and athletes when we celebrate our identities and bring all of who we are to the court.”

Steph Wheeler talks about setting an example for student-athletes, dismantling barriers for women-coaches, and leading with authenticity.

“I always say that I can’t take off being a woman, being disabled, or being gay when I come through the gym doors each morning for practice and neither can my student-athletes,” says Steph Wheeler, head coach for women’s wheelchair basketball team at the University of Illinois, “I choose to show up for myself and them in a way that affirms who they are and that shows them they are seen, heard, and valued on my team.”

The North Carolina native has been creating a welcoming space at the University of Illinois - both on and off the court - for the past 13 years. Steph’s ability to create a space that disabled women student-athletes can relate to and feel comfortable in comes from years of her own experience as a disabled woman athlete. After all, she began playing wheelchair basketball when she was twelve - just six years after her spinal cord injury. “I haven’t been without wheelchair basketball in my life ever since!” She was recruited to play college ball at the University of Illinois, and after graduating in 2004, she continued to compete on the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team until 2010 - winning gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games. Then she coached Team USA from 2013-2016, helping lead the team to a gold medal at the 2016 Paralympics.

Steph and wifeNow Steph and her wife, Laura, live in Champaign, IL, with their son, Cody, and their cat, Dash. When she’s not busy coaching, Steph spends her time working on her doctorate in Cultural Kinesiology, studying sport at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and disability. “I’m working on this because it’s an area in academia, particularly research in disability sport, that isn’t studied and understood at the same level as in nondisabled sport,” she shared. “I want the experiences and stories of disabled, queer women to be told and heard, because our stories have largely been unheard and undervalued.”

While she takes her studies seriously, it’s clear that Steph’s passion and priority is coaching. After spending decades as an athlete, she’s now responsible for the day to day operations of the University of Illinois’ women’s wheelchair basketball team which means planning and running daily practices, meeting with student-athletes, recruiting new athletes, game planning and coaching, and a lot of role modeling and mentoring.

For Steph, the impact of having a woman with a disability in her role isn’t lost on her.

Steph coaching“Student-athletes and other girls and women can see someone who looks like them in a role that they haven’t historically seen a disabled woman in. Every day, I get to redefine what a leader looks like,” Steph explained. “I want to show the women that I coach that they are worthy, they have value, and they have the right to take up space in this world as disabled women, when so often we are told that we shouldn’t.”

Steph is not only redefining what a leader looks like by being a disabled woman coach, she’s redefining what leadership looks like by challenging the status quo and speaking out on issues that impact her students and the larger community. A quick scroll through her Instagram reveals affirming posts on LGBTQ+ pride, anti-racism efforts, and feminism. It also contains a powerful letter regarding her resignation from the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Board of Directors in December 2021 after the NWBA chose to rehire Trooper Johnson as head coach of the women’s national team, despite multiple allegations of abuse from current and past players. In her letter, Steph boldly called out NWBA for its systemic gender discrimination - for not only rehiring a man to coach the women’s team after multiple women athletes reported misconduct but also for failing to hire disabled women in the same coaching positions. In fact, from 1968 to the time that Steph wrote the letter, only two women had ever been named head coach of the national women’s wheelchair basketball team. Notably, after Steph’s resignation from the Board and much public outcry, Trooper Johnson resigned from the position as head coach of the women’s national team and the NWBA hired Christina Ripp-Schwab, a disabled woman, to coach the team.

Steph as a childWhen asked why it’s so important for her to be vocal on issues like this, Steph’s answer was simple:

“I believe that we are at our best as coaches and athletes when we celebrate our identities and bring all of who we are to the court,” she explained. “My athletes see and hear what I say and do, and that includes if I choose to be silent regarding any social issue that may be impacting them. It shows them that we won’t be silent about things that matter, so when I am vocal about issues impacting their lives, they see that they matter. It also teaches them that as a team, we won’t be silent when there are issues that are in direct conflict with our values. I hope it shows them that when they have the courage to speak up for themselves and others, I will always be there, in their corner, supporting them through that process.”

Not only does Steph support her athletes by speaking out on critical issues, but she also supports women in sport by paving the way for more women to come through. As an athlete and a coach, she’s encountered many barriers, but instead of going around the barriers, Steph takes the time to dismantle them so that the next generation of women will hopefully not have to deal with the same barriers.

“The most frustrating barrier that I’ve encountered is the belief that because I am disabled and a woman, that I can’t lead. I’ve been passed over for head coaching positions when I’ve been the most qualified candidate. As a head coach, there have been times where I’ve been with male assistant coaches or other male staff members, and game officials or other people will assume that they are the coach, not me. Typically, I will interrupt and speak up, letting them know who I am and that their assumptions have been incorrect,” Steph explained.

Her experiences are not uncommon for a disabled woman coach. It’s no secret that there are not many women coaching wheelchair basketball - or any wheelchair athletics for that matter. Steph is on a mission to change that. “I believe the lack of women coaches is largely due to the fact that there isn’t a structured support system to develop and support our women coaches, so I want to create that space where women coaches can feel supported and grow in a healthy environment.”

Part of helping women feel supported is helping them to hone their own leadership style. To that end, Steph shared her advice for girls and women with disabilities who aspire to be leaders:

“You don’t have to be anything more than authentically you. I fell into this trap: we think that leadership looks a certain way, or that if you have a mentor or someone you look up to, you must lead in the exact same way they do to find success. I’ve found that nothing could be further from the truth. The more that I lead from a place of authenticity and being true to who I am, the more of an impact I have on those who have entrusted me to lead them.”

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.

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