Georgia advocate Kim Harrison’s eyes lit up while she was meeting with an aide from one of her state representative’s offices during this year’s Roll on Capitol Hill.
“Out of the corner of my eye I recognized the actual representative was about to walk by,” she recalls, “I instantly thought, ooh, score for us!”
With the nimbleness one would expect from a four-time veteran of the Roll, Harrison, her husband, Brian, and fellow advocates quickly circled their wheelchairs around the representative as he tried to make his way into his office.
“It’s kind of like going to the doctor,” she explains. “You learn to box them in and make sure they answer all the questions. Even though he felt sick, he took the time to stand and talk with us, he could have very easily just ducked into the office.”
Scenes like this played out throughout the halls of Congress as more than 120 members of United Spinal Association took over Washington, D.C., this June 24-27 for the seventh annual Roll on Capitol Hill. Wheelchair users, clinicians, partners and other disability advocates from 33 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, gathered to fight for greater access to quality affordable healthcare, community integration, disability rights, assistive and rehab technology, veterans’ benefits and air travel protections vital to people with spinal cord injury/disease.
Roll on Capitol Hill is United Spinal’s signature annual policy event that supports key advocacy priorities for its membership and the broader disability community to ensure that legislators include wheelchair users and all people with disabilities in policy debates on Capitol Hill.
“We believe wheelchair users should be involved in creating disability policies. That’s why our members must help educate policymakers about the needs and rights of people with disabilities,” says James Weisman, president and CEO of United Spinal Association. “We’re not just here to fight for a seat at the table. We’re here to fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
Pennsylvania member Katie Smith was one of more than 40 first-time attendees and says she came away revved up and eager to take the skills and information she learned back to fight in her local community.
“It was great to connect with people from chapters all over the United States and see how pumped up everyone was about advocacy,” she says. “I learned a lot, and then to be able to put all of that knowledge into action in meetings with legislators was incredibly empowering.”
A full day of over 200 meetings with representatives’ offices on June 26 was capped off with an awards reception to recognize members of Congress as well as grassroots advocates for their outstanding service to people with disabilities and veterans. Awardees included Senators Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and members Gretchelle Dilán, who received the 2018 Outstanding Community Service Award for her hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico (video below), and Texas member Earle Powdrell and his wife, Kathy, who received the 2018 Finn Bullers Advocates of the Year Award. Emotional speeches by Dilán and the Powdrells capped off an inspiring night (see ‘I Have a Voice’ an excerpt).
For members like Harrison, the annual event has transformed her from feeling like a nervous outsider to a fierce advocate.
“I was very intimidated the first time I came here and I wondered what someone like me was doing here,” she says. “Now it’s not ‘who am I?’ but ‘watch out for who I am.’”