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Driven to Advocate: Sandy Hanebrink

May 11th, 2022

This is an excerpt from the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of the Upstate Advocate, Upstate Forever's twice-yearly publication. To read a digital copy of the complete publication, please click here.

Sandy Hanebrink


I was always an athlete. I grew up in Mauldin and participated in many sports from the time I was 6 years old. I went on to be a scholarship athlete at Spartanburg Methodist College and then on to the University of Florida. While at the University of Florida, I was in a car accident that set off the crazy events leading to my allergic reaction to an antibiotic that resulted in transverse myelitis and becoming a quadriplegic.

I did extensive rehab for many years. While there, I was introduced to wheelchair sports and later became a Paralympian. During these opportunities, I became engaged with many mobility companies and learned about the evolving technologies available like functional neuro-stimulation walking systems. These did not work for me, but I continued to stay actively looking for the right technology for me so that when it was available, I could use it.

I was keeping my eye on the PhoeniX by SuitX. It was the lightest and least expensive to date and once I saw they had FDA approval, I contacted them. Unfortunately, like a lot of things, Covid-19 put a delay in the plan. It was quite the adventure to become the first person in South Carolina to receive this medical exoskeleton.

Last year, beginning in July, I made the journey across the country to Emeryville, California to SuitX. I couch surfed my way out, staying with friends as much as possible, and made many stops in state and national parks along the way. It was seven weeks total.

On September 21, 2021, it happened. 34 years, one month, and one day since I was paralyzed, Michael McKinley from SuitX came to SC and delivered my PhoeniX. I was walking.

Five days later, with the help of many friends, including 3 physical therapists, I walked the trail at Table Rock State Park to see the first of hopefully many waterfalls, one that I had not been able to access since my early 20s. The PhoeniX allowed me to rise again and gain access to my first of many adventures. It gave me another level of freedom to do the things I love to do. A focused fundraising effort began and continues today to help me and others get these amazing technologies.

In September 2021, Sandy walked a trail in Table Rock State Park for the first time in decades with the aid of her PhoeniX medical exoskeleton. Photo courtesy of

This special day also allowed me an opportunity to speak to the park ranger about the lack of access and how easily this particular trail could be accessible to all.

These treasured spaces are important for everyone but unfortunately, despite almost 60 years of laws and requirements, people with disabilities still have little access to outdoor spaces. These requirements are often unenforced or an afterthought unless a formal complaint or lawsuit is filed. So I continue to educate and advocate to ensure these standards, regulations, and civil rights are in place.

We must ensure there is accessible parking with accessible routes to our parks and all the facilities that are in them. Detailed information about accessibility should be available in alternate formats, so those who are blind or have other disabilities can access the information as necessary. There should also be programs that include sign language interpreters — I have only seen this done well once in over 34 years of advocacy. Disability access means access for seniors and families, too.

Now, my roles as Executive Director of Touch the Future, an occupational therapist, Paralympian, advocate, disabled person, and my life before disability are all intertwined. They are part of who I am and have created many amazing opportunities and an expansive network that has helped create better access and independence for myself and thousands of others. I work with local landscape architects, architects, engineers, and officials to design new facilities and make changes to existing ones.

Some of these projects in the Upstate include work with City of Anderson parks and greenways; Anderson County’s work on the Blue Ribbon Trail, including the first accessible kayak facility in SC at Dolly Cooper Park on the Saluda River and additional access at Timmerman Landing in Pelzer, Green Pond Landing and Event Center, and the East West Connector; Falls Park, Cancer Survivors Park, playgrounds and event centers in Mauldin, Anderson, Simpsonville, Greenville, and Spartanburg, as well as input on the Palmetto Trail, attending countless community planning events and speaking at local and county council meetings. I also serve or have served on many state and national committees and currently serve on the United Nations G3ict NeuroAbilities Advisory Committee.

I love the Upstate. I love living in the foothills, having access to so many rivers, lakes and trails — especially now with my exoskeleton — and the weather is great, too. But being a part of making this area more accessible to everyone is the icing on the cake.

Speak up. Advocate. Design accessible. Remove the barriers.

The Upstate is beautiful. Let’s make sure it stays that way and can forever be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Learn more about Touch the Future by visiting

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