Tag Archives: mackenzie saunders

The Struggles of a Walking Paraplegic

My disability isn’t very visible. I was paralyzed from the waist down in 2009 after sustaining an incomplete S-5 spinal cord injury during a soccer game. After using a wheelchair for a little while, I was able to regain enough sensation and movement to learn how to walk again. Now, I use a leg brace and walk with a slight limp, and I can’t walk further than 20 yards without getting tired. I also can’t stand for longer than a few minutes at a time because of my pain and weakness. And of course, I have some of the classic SCI symptoms: lack of bladder control, inability to regulate temperature below the site of injury, etc.

So, yes, I am disabled! I have a disability that affects me every day, as do all people with spinal cord injuries. Yet, whenever I refer to myself as “disabled” or as “a person with a disability,” I feel a twinge of guilt. Identifying as disabled out loud makes me feel guilty, as if I don’t have the right to claim that title.

I’m not exactly sure why I feel guilty for identifying as a part of the disabled community—specifically, the spinal cord injury community. Maybe it’s because I don’t “look the part” of having a spinal cord injury, as if there is only one way to look and be disabled. Maybe it’s because of the stigmatization of “invisible disabilities”, where invisible conditions are seen as less inhibiting and less real. Maybe it’s because of all the times I’ve been apprehended by strangers in public after legally parking my car in an accessible parking spot (and trust me, this is a common occurrence.)

Or maybe it’s because I know that I have more mobility and more sensation than a lot of people in my same position. Maybe it’s because I feel like I got lucky when I made my physical recovery. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly wondering why I’m able to walk and move and feel, when so many others never will.

Maybe because I’m less disabled than some, I don’t feel deserving of the title at all.

But disability isn’t static—neither are spinal cord injuries. SCIs aren’t a “one-size-fits-all” identity marker that looks the same for everyone. I shouldn’t expect myself to look any sort of way to validate my identity, nor should anyone else. Disability also isn’t a competition. What good comes out of comparing disabilities? Everyone is “less disabled” or “more disabled” than someone out there. Ultimately, comparing my disability to others is an unhealthy habit, and all it does is make me feel bad about my own struggles. 

I have a ways to go before this disability guilt completely leaves my mind. And of course, I must recognize that I do hold “passing privilege” (meaning I can sometimes pass as able-bodied in certain settings) that benefits me at times. I don’t have to deal with as many stares or instances of discrimination as people who use wheelchairs. I acknowledge that I do have privilege due to my physical recovery. But, I also need to recognize that I don’t have to look a certain way to be considered disabled. And I don’t need to be any “more” or “less” disabled to be considered as someone with a spinal cord injury. Neither does anyone else.

No one with a disability needs to feel guilty about calling themselves disabled. If you have a disability/SCI, no matter what kind, no matter the severity, and no matter what you look like: you are valid, and you have a place in the disability community. 

Hopefully, someday, my guilt will go away. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to call myself what I am: disabled.

This post was written by Mackenzie Saunders, Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm Paralegal and SPINALpedia Director of Operations. Mackenzie is currently finishing her degrees in Political Economy and Justice Studies at Arizona State University, and will attend Harvard Law School in Fall 2022. Mackenzie loves dogs, public speaking, and spending time with her sisters.

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.”