The result was that our grass roots activists from across the country accomplished more Hill visits and raised awareness of critical issues to a greater extent than ever before.
United Spinal Association and over 120 wheelchair user members, clinicians, partners and other disability advocates from 33 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, gathered in Washington, D.C. on June 24-27 for the Annual Roll on Capitol Hill to highlight 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 (SCI/D).
Roll on Capitol Hill is United Spinal’s annual signature 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,” said James Weisman, United Spinal Association’s president and CEO.
“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,” added Weisman.
During Roll on Capitol Hill, attendees took part in over 200 congressional office visits, meeting face-to-face with their representatives and other key legislators to personally discuss their unique challenges living with a disability and to advocate for:
• Maximizing access to quality affordable healthcare for people with disabilities, including fighting against ACA repeal-and-replace efforts; promoting appropriate rehabilitative therapy; opposing cuts to Medicare and Medicaid; ensuring wheelchair users have access to complex rehab technology and supporting robust community supports and services.
• Supporting the rights of our disabled veterans by advocating for permanent funding for the VA Choice Program, which permits veterans with physical disabilities to continue to have the opportunity to secure care close to home; and the Disabled Veterans Life Insurance Act of 2017 (HR 4146), which increases insurance amounts for service-disabled veterans.
• Protecting the rights of air travelers with disabilities by advocating for the passage of the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, (S. 1318 and H.R. 5004).
• Opposing the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620), which would require a person with a disability to give a business a notification letter and wait no less than 120 days before filing a lawsuit when encountering a physical barrier.
One of Roll on Capitol Hill’s youngest participants, 18 year-old Shayla Gaither of Philadelphia, attended this year for the first time to push for greater accessibility and raise awareness that individuals in the disability community can live independent and successful lives.
“I want legislators to realize that we are human-beings like everyone else and we deserve equal rights,” said Gaither, who is pursuing a Communications degree in advertising.
“Living with a disability my entire life, it has always been difficult to feel accepted. Joining other wheelchair users on Capitol Hill, has really opened my eyes to some of the many issues that we face as a community,” Gaither added.
On June 25, Roll on Capitol Hill attendees participated in a full day of policy briefings from advocates, agency officials and Capitol Hill staffers that focused on pertinent legislative issues impacting the disability community.
The event began with an advocacy training session that provided new attendees insight on how to perform a successful Capitol Hill visit with their congressional representatives. The main takeaway was for advocates to share their personal stories to demonstrate how specific legislation impacts their own lives.
“The sense of community at Roll on Capitol Hill is extremely powerful. Pairing up new attendees with seasoned advocates, provides the confidence needed to ensure their personal stories resonate with their representatives,” said Alex Bennewith, MPA, Vice President, Government Relations at United Spinal.
The keynote speaker at the Roll was Mary Lazare, Principal Deputy Administrator, Administration for Community Living and Acting Commissioner on Disabilities at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who discussed the importance of healthcare services and supports for the disability community.
United Spinal’s VetsFirst program hosted a luncheon to advocate for key issues facing the community of veterans living with disabilities, which the organization has served since it’s founding in 1946:permanent funding for the VA Choice Program and increased insurance amounts for disabled veterans.
On the evening of June 26, United Spinal hosted a Congressional Awards Reception to recognize members of Congress as well as grassroots advocates for their outstanding service to people with disabilities and veterans, including:
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) – 2018 James J. Peters Distinguished Veterans Legislator Award
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) – 2018 Outstanding Congressional Leadership Award
Gretchelle Dilán – 2018 Outstanding Community Service Award
United Spinal also honored Houston, Texas member Earle Powdrell and his wife Kathy with the 2018 Finn Bullers Advocates of the Year Award, for their advocacy leadership and dedication to state and federal policy issues impacting the SCI/D and broader disability community.
“United Spinal transformed my purpose. Today I speak, today I’m not voiceless,” said Earle Powdrell, 65, an aerospace engineer and brain stem stroke survivor, who spoke through a voice synthesizer.
“I’m so thankful to all of you for this opportunity. We truly stand in the shadow of all of you whom we’ve met through the years attending Roll on Capitol Hill. Your tireless work serves the wheelchair community on many levels,” said Powdrell.