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CIDP Student Profile: From Designing Buildings to Designing Lives

Louie shares her story at the World Health Organization's Strategic and Technical Advisory Group MeetingAs the Institute on Disability and Public Policy (IDPP) prepares to celebrate the inaugural convocation ceremony of anticipated graduates in the Master’s in Comparative and International Disability Policy (CIDP) program, it reflects not only on the program, its mission, and first-year experiences, but also upon the students and their incredible achievements. Ms. Eloisa Zepeda is one such student – a remarkable woman with a remarkable story.

Photo Caption: Ms. Zepeda shares her testimonial at the World Health Organization's Strategic and Technical Advisory Group meeting in Geneva.

Ms. Zepeda, or “Louie” as she is known to most, was born in Manila, Philippines. At age 24, she contracted an extreme case of Tuberculosis Meningitis and suffered from temporary paralysis and chronic pain for several years. Louie nearly lost her life before doctors found a drug that could treat her disease. In 2010, she made a miraculous recovery, but not before losing her sight as result of the medication she was given to treat her particularly antibiotic-resistant strain of Tuberculosis.

Prior to her diagnosis, Louie was a typical young woman. She was an architect at a successful firm, and had a passion for design. While her disease stripped her of the tools she needed to design new buildings and structures, it replaced them with new dreams and goals. Once physically able, Louie immersed herself in the disability community and international organizations that advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities.

“My life after going blind was all about looking for something more to do. I did a lot of advocacy because everyone said I had a way of interacting with people,” says Louie.

In the last several years, Louie has been invited to participate in the Philippines Local Government Unit and the National Committee on the United Nations Convention on the Louie poses with colleagues from the World Health OrganizationRights of Persons with Disabilities representing Blind Women for Accessibility.

Photo Caption: Ms. Zepeda with WHO colleagues.

While Louie was enrolled in IDPP Executive Director Dr. Derrick L. Cogburn’s Cross Cultural Collaboration in Global Virtual Teams course, she became familiar with the World Health Organization (WHO). In the course, she and fellow CIDP and School of International Service (SIS) students across ASEAN and the U.S. worked in virtual teams on projects with the WHO and many other organizations around the world. Louie decided that an internship with the WHO would compliment her concentration in the study of communicable diseases. 

With the help of a recommendation from Dr. Cogburn, and after passing the necessary skills requirements, Louie was offered an internship position within the Disability and Rehabilitation Team (DAR) of the WHO. With sponsorship from the IDPP, Louie spent seven weeks in Geneva, Switzerland working with the WHO, advocating on behalf of individuals who have suffered from similar debilitating diseases.

Louie’s work within these organizations also helped her recognize that there is a thin line between policymaking and policy implementation.

“The participation of the disability community in these institutions has to evolve. We need full participation in any agreements or treaties. Nobody knows what I need every conflicting blind day. Instead of us being given direction, we need to be the ones to show the institutions how to go about things in the larger community.”

Louie originally found out about the CIDP program and The Nippon Foundation fellowship in June 2011, after a fellow architect and friend Jaime Silva, who is also blind, encouraged Louie to apply for admission. Louie realized that the program’s emphasis on disability policy could help focus her passion for advocacy, and prepare her to become a liaison between governing bodies and the disability community.

“I had only been blind a few years before I was admitted to the CIDP program. I knew little of [the disability community]. The challenging curriculum and prestigious professors, topics discussed, and readings that I never thought of reading made me see the other side of this disability. Interactions and deeper understanding of the concerns [of the disability sector] make the acceptance of my disability easier. Now I use it as an asset, collaborating with different cultures, perspectives, and backgrounds."

Group photo of the World Health Organization's Strategic and Technical Advisory Group MeetingUpon graduation, Louie hopes to take what she has learned about international relations and disability policy, combine it with her life experiences, and help guide decision-making bodies in creating more effective policies to benefit persons with disabilities.

Photo Caption: Group photo of WHO Strategic and Technical Advisory Group meeting participants in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I may not design structures anymore, but I can design lives. It’s just a different perspective.”

Follow Louie and the IDPP on Twitter to learn more about the remarkable stories of CIDP students.