Automobile accidents and sports injuries may make up most of the spinal cord injuries that occur each year, but for Mackenzie Saunders, her low, incomplete injury falls on the rare side after an unexpected soccer injury. Injured when she was just 11 years old, she worked incredibly hard to walk again. Now, 9 years later, she’s a walking paraplegic and has even bigger dreams outside of physical return–she wants to change the world as a lawyer.
“I was the youngest person in the inpatient rehabilitation program, by far,” says Mackenzie about her time in rehab following her soccer injury in 2010. She was just 11 years old. “I was playing a club soccer game when I was knocked down by an opposing player. I fell down, fracturing my tailbone upon impact. I got right back up and played for 20 more minutes. After those 20 minutes, my legs started burning and getting really weak.” After going home with her parents, her symptoms progressed and within hours, Mackenzie lost all feeling and movement below the waist.
“It took the doctors 2 days to get me an MRI and diagnose the fracture in my tailbone and the spinal contusion that caused my paralysis.” Mackenzie was diagnosed with an S-5 incomplete injury. Within two months, she was back home and eager to return to her school who supported her in the transition. By high school, she could walk with AFO’s, a form of orthotic braces that support the ankle and foot. She still, however, can’t jump or run. “Standing is difficult for me, as well; I avoid standing for long periods of time.”
“I used to be incredibly athletic.” Mackenzie reflects on how hard the loss of playing sports was in her life. ”It was the biggest part of my life. But I have found other things that I really enjoy, such as legal work, speech and debate coaching, and taking on leadership positions in different organizations.”
Once Mackenzie graduated from high school, she enrolled at Arizona State University, which is where she had the revelation of going to law school. “Speech and debate has really fueled my love for public speaking and argumentation, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college when I finally realized I should go into law.” While coaching a middle school debate team, one of her students gave her the idea. “He just said it so matter-of-factly, like, ‘You WILL be a lawyer, and you will be good at it.’ I realized, wait, he’s right! I would be a good lawyer! I should do that!’” And that is exactly what Mackenzie is currently on her way to doing. She is waiting to hear back from Harvard Law School this July about attending (with Stanford and Yale law schools as backup). “After my injury, I thought I wanted to go into politics so I could change policy and laws around disability. I’ve always wanted to help people who are disabled, just like me. But I later realized that I don’t need to be a politician in order to change policy; I can be a lawyer.”
“I never thought I would actually be accepted to Harvard Law, but then I took the LSAT for the second time in November and actually got the score I needed to be qualified (174).” This law school is of particular interest to Mackenzie based on Harvard’s reputation as a leading resource for disability rights law. In looking to gain experience in this area before entering law school, Mackenzie has taken on a summer internship as part of her undergraduate studies at Arizona State University. She is working alongside attorney Kelley Brooks Simoneaux, a paraplegic who founded The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm, the nation’s only firm of its kind. “I will be conducting investigatory research for the cases that Kelley is involved with,” Mackenzie said. She will also track policy issues regarding disability rights and help run the social media for The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm. Kelley Simoneaux has already been impressed by Mackenzie, noting that she hopes “Mackenzie will be the next generation of lawyers with disabilities fighting for the rights of the disability community.”
Naturally, Mackenzie is interested in practicing disability rights law once she becomes a practicing attorney. “I want to get into the nitty-gritty policy stuff,” she says. “Like reforming the ADA and working with Congress to create new, beneficial policy for those with disabilities. I really enjoy litigation and trial advocacy as well, so I’m sure I’ll be doing both of those things and representing clients with disabilities while I fight for policy reform.”
And she has her eyes set on the biggest prize of them all for any lawyer – the Supreme Court. “My dream is to be a Supreme Court Justice someday.” Dreaming big is why we love having Mackenzie part of our team. “I’ll be taking two gap years after I graduate from Arizona State to gain some work experience before I start attending law school in 2022. I would then graduate with my J.D. in 2025.”