This well over 100 United Spinal members and fellow advocates will descend on our nation’s capital to advocate for the SCI/D community at our Annual Roll on Capitol Hill. Here’s a look back at the event’s origins and how it has evolved in its first five years.
The Task at Hand
Imagine you wanted to plan a first-of-its-kind advocacy event in Washington, D.C. No sweat, right? Organizations do it all the time.
Well, what if you add in the fact that the majority of your attendees use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. Don’t forget that many will need accessible hotel rooms, and that many will be traveling with attendants. The hotel will also need to have accessible meeting rooms and yeah, you’ll probably need to provide some medical equipment for traveling attendees who can’t bring their own. Still good? Excellent.
Next up, transportation. How are you going to get 80-plus wheelchair users from the hotel to the Capitol and back? And because you want a challenge, let’s say that the event is going to be the first gathering of your organization since it merged with another organization and everybody is still feeling each other out.
A Sense of Possibility
Those were but a few of the logistical obstacles facing Alex Bennewith and the United Spinal policy team back in 2012 as they planned the first ever Roll on Capitol Hill for that summer. Bennewith, now United Spinal’s vice president for government relations, had just been hired as United’s director of public policy six months earlier. She remembers the phone call where she learned that she would be part of the team responsible for putting the event together. As a policy person working in D.C., she had helped with similar conferences many times, but the logistics of the Roll on Capitol Hill were unique. “Making sure everyone was accommodated and doing it for the first time here definitely added another layer of complexity,” she says.
As United’s longtime legal counsel, James Weisman had been in on discussions about holding an advocacy event for decades. “We always wanted to do it, but we never got it together,” says Weisman. “It takes so much from the staff to pull something like this off, and we never felt like we really had the ability.” That changed in 2011 when United Spinal merged with the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. In addition to adding staff and resources, the merger brought NSCIA’s members and chapters in — many of whom were unfamiliar with United Spinal. “We had to have a face for the chapters so they could know who we were, and the Roll on Capitol Hill seemed like a good way to help them figure it out,” adds Weisman.
The first Roll on Capitol Hill kicked off at the historic Mayflower Hotel on a typically hot and humid June weekend in 2012. “There was a sense of possibility in the air,” says Abby Ross, now United Spinal’s COO. “Everything was exciting and new, and having everyone finally together was so much fun.” There weren’t as many attendees as subsequent Rolls on Capitol Hill, and staff only scheduled about half as many visits to representatives as later Rolls would have, but the event showed what was possible and got rave reviews from attendees in the final day’s wrap-up session. “I was overwhelmingly buoyed by the spirit and enthusiasm the first year,” adds Weisman.
With one in the bag, the stage was set for future Rolls on Capitol Hill. “Once we knew that we could actually pull the Roll off, there was a big sense of confidence,” says Ross. For the next two years, the Roll on Capitol Hill moved northwest to two hotels in Woodley Park. The hotels offered more space and accessible accommodations, but a longer, more difficult commute to Capitol Hill. Each year the event grew, adding attendees, sponsors and advocacy priorities. Both Weisman and Bennewith saw a change in the way the Roll was perceived in year three.
“I think the magnitude of the Roll kind of hit everyone in the third year,” says Bennewith. “People realized this was the real thing and it wasn’t going away.” Weisman was excited to see the impact grow beyond just the individuals who attended and the people they met with. “The people who came were caught up in the spirit and the enthusiasm, but it took a couple of years for the enthusiasm to translate to the chapters and the community. That’s when they started to see it as an important thing to do.”
What had started as a slightly awkward gathering of a newly mixed family had become a full-on family reunion. “When we started, I think chapters and members were somewhat isolated in their regions,” says Bennewith. “Now it’s a community. People can connect with folks and not feel isolated and alone dealing with their issues.”
To save on the prohibitive cost of renting accessible transportation for 80 wheelchairs and to be closer to the action, the Roll moved back downtown for years four and five. The new location made it easier to use D.C.’s famed metro to actually roll to Capitol Hill. By year four the event had begun to take on a life of its own. Everyone from staff to returning attendees was more confident, there were less unexpected hiccups, and everyone was better able to focus on the most important thing – making the voice of the community heard on Capitol Hill.
“It’s been a pleasure to see people who have come multiple times and see how they are now prepared for it and excited for it,” says Ross. “They’re passing the information to the new people.”
Making an Impact
The Roll on Capitol Hill’s impact has also changed United Spinal. “As much as we shaped the Roll on Capitol Hill, it has shaped us,” says Weisman. “It has changed who we are, and it has put us on the map as a disability rights organization. There is nothing more grassroots-y than bringing people to Washington. Because we come to Washington and bring our members, we put our money where our mouth is and we can take controversial positions … Other disability groups in D.C. see us that way, and they want our support.”
“Now, whenever I go back to the Hill or have meetings around D.C., people say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember Roll on Capitol Hill,’” says Bennewith. She has a long list of representatives and aides who have told her the ROCH visits opened their eyes, not only to policy issues, but to the realities of living in an often-inaccessible world. “I remember one staffer telling me how one of the visits made them realize their office wasn’t accessible. That makes me feel good because that’s what it’s all about, helping people realize things about accessibility that they didn’t before.”
With over 100 wheelchair users already confirmed at the time of publication, not including fellow advocates and other partners, the 2017 Roll on Capitol Hill is poised to be the biggest and most successful one yet. After the event’s intense four-day duration, United Spinal staff will take a few days off and then continue planning the 7th annual Roll. In fact, planning for 2018 started as early as the end of 2016. “10 is not very far down the road from six,” points out Bennewith.
Weisman makes it clear why it is so important that attendees keep making the arduous trip every summer. “I find that with every disability rights issue, there is usually no logical other side,” he says. “So, if you keep making the argument, then eventually people will hear and do what you want. That’s why continued vigilance is so important, because if you don’t make the argument over and over again, it won’t get done. But if you do, then it becomes everybody else’s argument and they start to think they made it up. Discrimination won’t go away if you don’t highlight it.”
– Ian Ruder