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Rhodes Scholar Aims to Merge Math with Public Health to Advocate for those Living with Disabilities

By Nate Herpich

Lindsay Lee

This coming fall, University of Tennessee graduate Lindsay Lee will attend Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, where she will pursue a master's degree in applied statistics. But before she heads to England, and thanks in part to a Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Quality of Life grant, she is spending the summer working as an intern through the U.S. International Council on Disabilities (USICD) Youth in International Development and Affairs program.

Lindsay, who is living with muscular dystrophy, interns at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which has worked in more than 135 countries to support citizens' rights to participate in free and fair elections. Here, she talks to the Reeve Foundation about her current work with IFES, her hopes for her time at Oxford, and her ultimate goal to one day use her analytical skills in a way that promotes health policies for marginalized populations such as those living with disabilities.

First off, congratulations on being a Rhodes scholar, it's such a prestigious honor. What are you hoping to get out of your time at Oxford?

Thanks! I can hardly believe I'm off to Oxford at the end of September myself. The Rhodes scholarship offers two years of study, and I'm going to take advantage and complete two one-year master's programs. The first will be in applied statistics, and I think the second will likely be in global health science. My interest really is in dealing with health issues on a large scale. I also hope to be able to have some time to travel around, but my focus of course will be on my studies.

You have a really interesting academic background -- a double major in math and Spanish, with a Portuguese minor. And now you're planning to merge the math with global health. Explain to us how you hope to implement these seemingly differing courses of academic inquiry.

Math is fundamental in public health, and I hope to be able to use my analytical skills in a way that promotes positive health policies for marginalized populations; in particular, for those people around the world who are living with disabilities.

Currently, some of the world's major health organizations use discriminatory math in how they define populations, and this can have a direct impact on both the rights, and opportunities of those living with disabilities. For example, the way that the World Health Organization analyzes burden of disease, in short, assigns people living with disabilities a lesser mathematical value. This means that frequently in statistical analyses it's determined that, on a macro level, it is less efficient to provide certain forms of health care to the disabled. These types of statistics, then, can make it easier for people to discriminate against the disabled. I'd like to be at the forefront of changing the way we view this math.

While you're only a recent college graduate, you already have a lot of experience advocating for the disability community. Tell us about your work at the University of Tennessee in this capacity.

When I was a sophomore, I founded Campus Disability Advocates, an organization designed to educate the university community on disability issues. When I arrived on campus, there were a lot of conversations about diversity, but the idea of disability was missing from those conversations. I spent a good two years leading this organization as president, and I'm happy with our progress. We established a disability week, and we inspired the school's vice chancellor to convene a task force on how to improve campus life for those student with disabilities. More and more at UT, the disability community has a voice, and this is a great thing.

Tell us about the current work you're doing for IFES.

My job, specifically, is to work on the update and redesign of a website built and run by IFES called Election Access. IFES' mission is to foster free and fair elections in countries around the world through a variety of outreach programs, and Election Access will be specifically devoted to disability access issues in all of the countries that IFES serves. Right now, I'm cataloguing election laws in each of the countries to find language that might discriminate against people living with disabilities, and eventually, we'll make this information known on this site. I'm hopeful that it's going to be a great resource.

What has the IFES internship meant to you?

The first thing that struck me was how easy it was for all of us interns to relate to each other. I've never before been in a situation where I felt so comfortable, and this has been really meaningful. And I've learned a lot that I will be able to apply to my future work.

I'm grateful to USICD for awarding me this grant, and I also want to thank the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. I have a personal aide that comes with me when I'm away from home, and I never would have been able to cover the expense without the Foundation's generous support. In fact, I had to say ‘no' initially to the internship, but then I heard of the grant. It means so much for me to be able to do this.

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Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders