Category Archives: Feature stories

SCI Superstar: Ali Stroker

The theater world will never be the same for people with and without disabilities thanks to Ali Stroker. You may have just heard of her because of her recent Tony win, but she’s been working hard for years in a world where wheelchair-users are rare. She has, without question, shattered the glass ceiling for actors in wheelchairs, proving that you do not need to stand up to rise to the top.

Ali, however, didn’t find her passion for the performing arts until high school, which she says is when she started to truly feel alive. A huge proponent of finding your passion and rolling with it, read on for the latest on one of the shiniest SCI Superstars out there.

Why She’s Fearless

Growing up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, Ali only remembers life in a wheelchair. Paralyzed at age of 2 in a car accident, she grew up as a wheelchair-user, which she admits wasn’t always the easiest. “I was always looking trying to find someone that looked like me, and I never could.” Now 31, she is now that person little girls in wheelchairs look up to.

After Ali discovered her love for theater, she says it changed everything. “Finding something you’re truly good at can bring opportunities and bring good energy into your life,” she says. After high school, Ali went on to study at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 2009, she went on to audition for as many productions as she could.

In 2011, she made the first notch on her Broadway belt by being the first woman in a wheelchair cast in an off-Broadway production as a lead in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Paper Mills Playhouse in New Jersey, and this was just the beginning of her burgeoning professional theater career. She reprised this role again at the Philadelphia Theater Company, which earned her a Barrymore Award Nomination.

Ali also began to get roles in movies around this time. In 2011, she was cast in the short film, I Was a Mermaid and Now I’m a Pop Star and in 2012 she was cast in The Glee Project, a reality show that placed the winners on the real Glee TV show. She earned second place, which got her a guest role on the fourth season. Ali was also cast in the film Cotton at this time, starring Gary Cole (he played the boss in Office Space).

After a short stint on MTV’s Faking It, Ali was cast in another big theater production – Spring Awakening – in 2015, a Broadway production that took place directly on a Broadway stage in New York City. This too was a first for actors in wheelchairs. After this show, she was cast in ABC’s 10 Days in the Valley and Lethal Weapon, as well as Drunk History on Comedy Central, where she played Judy Heumann, the famous disability rights activist. And in 2019, she was cast in the role of a lifetime – Ado Annie in Oklahoma!

What’s Next?

Ali won a Tony Award for her performance in Oklahoma! on June 9, 2019, making history as the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony. Ali is now sure to be a household name in the theater world, and let’s hope in Hollywood as well. Continuing her role in Oklahoma! throughout the rest of the Summer, she is slated to star in a new episode of Charmed on the CW later this year.

In addition to her work on stage, Ali is also known for her advocacy. She is the co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City, and she’s a founding member of Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign that tours schools throughout the country.

– Ali’s official site: https://www.alistroker.com

Watch her Videos!

Watch Ali accept her Tony Award

Be More Heroic by Ali Stroker

The Rollettes Honor Ali at Be Boundless Event

After Childhood Soccer Injury, Mackenzie Saunders on a Mission to Improve Disability Laws

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.

Her Injury as a Girl

“I was the youngest person in the inpatient rehabilitation program, by far,” says Mackenzie about her time in rehab following her soccer injury in 2009. 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.”

Discovering Her Passion for Disability Law

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.”

Her Law Aspirations

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.”