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SCI Superstar: Mackenzie Saunders

Automobile wrecks and accidental slip-and-falls 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 accident. Injured when she was just 11 years old, she has worked incredibly hard to walk again. Now, 10 years later, she’s a walking paraplegic and has even bigger dreams outside of physical return. Mackenzie was recently accepted to Harvard Law School, where she wants to change the world as a lawyer.

Why She’s Fearless

“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 school in a wheelchair. 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.”

What’s Next?

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 will do. She was accepted to Harvard Law School through an early decision program and will start attending in 2022. “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 an 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. Kelley was thrilled to hear of Mackenzie’s acceptance into Harvard Law School: “Mackenzie has been a wonderful asset to the Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm. Her personal experience with a spinal cord injury has given her a unique understanding to better serve our clients and firm.  Not only is she an incredibly gifted mind who works very hard, but she is also a wonderful person that I know will go on to do amazing things in our community. Her admission to Harvard Law School is no surprise to me after working with her and I am very excited to watch where this wonderful education will take her in law and beyond. Mackenzie will be the next generation of lawyers with disabilities fighting for the rights of the disability community.”

Mackenzie conducts investigatory research for the cases that Kelley is involved with, tracks policy issues regarding disability rights, and writes online articles for The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm.

Her Law Aspirations

Naturally, Mackenzie is interested in practicing disability rights law once she becomes an 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 as 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 Harvard in 2022. I’ll then graduate with my J.D. in 2025.”