Wendy Lu — From Graduate to Advocate

Wendy Lu Columbia GradGoogle “Wendy Lu” (seriously, google “Wendy Lu”) and the first result will be “proud disabled woman”. (So will the second, third and fourth!) It’s who she is and, along with her talent, what she brings to her passion, journalism.

ABILITY Magazine met Lu after a recent trip to Abu Dhabi, in a lead up to the Special Olympics World Games in UAE. Lu and ABILITY’s Chet Cooper were invited speakers, and trainers, to share best practices in media coverage of disabled athletes with international journalists. We pulled Wendy away from her busy day at Huffington Post to talk about her experience, her passion, inclusion and the language of disability.

Marge Plasmier: We’re really interested in your work. Can you tell us a little bit of what you do at Huffington Post?

Wendy Lu: Yes, sure. I am an editor and a producer, and I do a little bit of—I do multiple things. It’s funny because I feel like back in the day, there used to be time where you had your reporters, your editors, your producers. And now, I feel like in the industry we’re sort of expected to be able to know multiple skills.

Basically, I edit and produce videos for the breaking news and training team as well as some long-form videos. I help edit those as well, and I also edit print stories, the written stories that go up on the site. And I also write stories about disability, about social issues, gender politics, like—you name it. It’s kind of like a wide scope of things. That’s the gist, essentially.

Plasmier: Was journalism, communications, your life dream? How did you move into that?

Lu: Yes, it’s funny because I feel like I knew that I always wanted to be a writer. I knew that storytelling was my passion. I went to the University of Chapel Hill for college, studied journalism there as an undergraduate as well as psychology. I also went to graduate school for journalism as well at Columbia University here in New York. That’s why I moved to New York back in 2015.

I guess even before that, I did journalism in high school, even in middle school, if we count that. I knew it was something that I always wanted to do. And I think the more I’ve been in journalism, I’ve found a passion for helping to lift up the stories and voices of marginalized communities, in particular. I found that really meaningful, and I feel like that’s something that with the platform that I have—not that I feel like I have a huge one. But in this position at HuffPost, I want to be able to lift up those types of stories.

Plasmier: So you’ve used your talent for activism, for putting the word out about different ethnic groups, people with disabilities?

Lu: Yeah. I think initially I didn’t know exactly that’s what I wanted to do or that’s what my focus would be. It was when I first joined Bustle[.com] as a lifestyle fellow in 2016, right after I graduated and right after I did a summer internship at AM New York, which is a local outlet here in New York City. I joined a millennial news website called Bustle, and they do a lot of—I wouldn’t say activism journalism, but a lot of stories that try to be really intersectional and feminist and bring really important under-reported stories to light.

I remember my editor was like, “Hey, Wendy, I know that you are really comfortable and vocal about your disability and writing about disability in general. Would you be open to writing a piece about your experiences? Would you like to pitch some stories about disability?”

I was like, “Oh, yeah! That sounds great!” So I did, and of the stories that I wrote there, the ones about disability seemed to resonate the most with readers. I realized those stories had the biggest—I got the biggest responses, reactions to those pieces. And that told me a couple different things.

It told me that these stories, these experiences, writing about disability is something that a lot of people, it seems, are able to relate to. I had people emailing me, tweeting me, being like, “Hey, I know exactly how that feels!”

And then the second thing was that there are a lot of people who really want to read about this, but it’s under-reported. That told me that we’re not covering this enough. It’s sort of from there that I wrote even more about disability. I started focusing on that.

I also recognized the importance of not just focusing on the communities that I’m a part of. But also, in a really tactful way, I try to write other stories about other communities, other really important issues, in a way that helps lift up other people’s voices as well. Even if it’s not in a community that I particularly identify with, I think about how I can be a good ally in that way.Wendy Lu NYT first Article

Plasmier: I saw a piece that you’re talking about specifically being an Asian American and having a disability that had a particular aspect to it.

Lu: Yeah. That piece we did was for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which was last month. It was really cool because the editor of Asian Voices here asked me if I’d be willing to write about the intersection of disability and what it’s like having a disability in the Asian American community.

I think being disabled is something that has a lot of stigma related to that in Asian communities in general. But when you throw in being disabled in an immigrant family as well as being Asian, there are all sorts of complex dynamics that happen, especially in a family setting.

Some of the folks I spoke with shared certain parallels between [being] an immigrant—we’re taught to try to strive for the American dream. We need to put our heads down and prove that we’re not being a burden to the country that we’ve moved to, and we need to try to prove that we’re worth being here. And we have a lot to contribute. There’s a lot of pressure on us.

And then when you add having a disability, there’s often a sense of you’re worried about accommodations, about being a burden in any way because you’re in a setting that isn’t—People with disabilities are trying to navigate a world that wasn’t designed for them. They’re constantly trying to navigate buildings or whatever it might be to break through those barriers, if you will.

Plasmier: What type of things does an Asian American woman, possibly with a disability, face that may be particular, culturally?

Lu: Oftentimes, for example, some of the harassment or bullying or micro-aggressions, the things that we face—It’s not always clear-cut, like, “This is definitely because I’m disabled,” or “This is definitely because I’m Asian.”

For example, I remember—I think there was one person I spoke with for my article where they faced a lot of internalized ableism from within their family because they wanted to get accommodations at school. But their parents were like, “No, that’s wasting too much time. You should be focused on schoolwork instead.”

Facing the model minority myth and adding a lot of pressure to someone who really needed to get accommodations—Without them they’re not able to do the schoolwork.—So then the accommodations were seen as getting in the way of their academics, without realizing that those are things that they need to succeed and to have a fulfilling education.

There are a lot of different dynamics there, in the family, internally. It’s something that we live with, something we don’t get to talk about. It was—I know it can be very cathartic for people to talk about it as well.

Plasmier: I’m curious, did the person you were talking about get the accommodation to what they needed to be able to succeed? Did they turn down the accommodation?

Lu: Last I spoke with them, I think they were still trying to wait to see. They were still working on getting those accommodations. It’s really hard because in a university setting, when you’re trying to apply for accommodations, it can take so long for the paperwork, for the back-and-forth, talking to professors.

During that time that passes, while they’re dealing with all the logistics, that’s time where they’re not able to access their classes. Or they’re having communication with the professor and, in the meantime back at home, the family might be impatient or being like, “Why is this taking so long?” Especially if the parents are not disabled, they see the disability as a problem instead of something that is a part of their kids.

Although I do also want to add that in this example, it’s a family dynamic. I’m not saying this is present in all Asian American disabled families, that there’s always a struggle between the kids and the parents. There’s a lot of intergenerational trauma involved as well that crops up during these conversations. It’s a lot more complex, I think.

Plasmier: Are parents saying, “Just push through, don’t get the accommodation”? They don’t see that it’s a normal thing to have the accommodation?

Lu: I think with respect to if it’s Asian parents who are trying to push their kids, especially if it’s a recent disability that maybe the kid acquired and they’re still trying to navigate things like healthcare, insurance, getting accommodations. When you’re from an Asian immigrant family, it’s harder to speak up, especially for women.

Asian women are often conditioned to keep to themselves and push through their pain. For the parents, it’s hard because this is something they have also been conditioned to think, that we need to work really hard. We’re in this country where we really need to prove ourselves and show that we have something to contribute, show we’re successful. We need to be part of the American dream.

The reality is that the American dream often isn’t one that includes people with disabilities. There’s a specific narrative that people have in their minds when they think of the American dream, and for lack of a word, it’s not accessible.

Plasmier: In another piece you recently wrote on employment, about not including people with disabilities in a specific job posting you found. How did you come across that?

Lu: The job posting that I was referring to, I saw it on Newsday, a Long Island newspaper that also publishes AM New York and I think they have local affiliates in terms of TV stations and things like that. I came across the job posting on Twitter where you see a lot of job postings being advertised. Especially in the journalism industry, there’s so much turnover just in general.

When I saw that job posting, it was so—not just egregious, but it surprised me because I was an intern at AM New York back in 2016, right before I was at Bustle. I had an amazing time during my internship.

My colleagues and my managers treated me just like one of their own full-time reporters. I got to challenge myself and learned new skill sets. When I saw the job posting, I was like, “Wow, this is totally not in line with the experience I had.” I had also free-lanced for Newsday itself before. So I decided to call them out on Twitter.

Plasmier: Can you talk about what was in that job posting that was disturbing for you?

Lu: It was a job posting for a general assignment reporter. Basically, it had a lot of understandable requirements that you need to be a reporter, like the ability to break news and meet tight deadlines and things like that.

But then towards the bottom half, there were a bunch of bullet points that required things like: you need the ability to reach and bend and lift, push, pull, and carry a minimum of 25 pounds. And then there was also a typing speed requirement. You need to be able to type a minimum of 40 words per minute. And it also said that the role was mainly a sedentary desk job, and that you would be required to sit for an extended period of time, up to a full eight-hour shift.

I had seen those types of job postings way back, but I think because I’ve been writing about disabilities for a couple years now, I was looking at this with a totally different perspective. Like “Wait, this excludes a lot of people from applying for this job.”, when I know that a job like this, a reporter job, won’t require all these specific things that are specifically related to someone’s mobility, their strength, their weight, their size, whatever it might be.

Plasmier: So you called them out on Twitter?

Lu: Yeah. I called them out. I was like, “Hey, Newsday, I had a great internship back in 2016. Why is it now that I’m seeing this job posting that is pretty discriminatory against people with disabilities?”

I also included subtweets, outlining the exact problematic language and saying, “This is something that people with disabilities have to deal with all the time.”

When I was writing my article, this was something that I found is not just in media. It’s in pretty much every single industry you look at, particularly in the education sector. I know one university got called out because they posted a job advertisement for diversity and inclusion director, but one of the requirements was that you had to be able to access non-ADA-compliant buildings.

Plasmier: Oh, really?

Lu: Yeah.

Plasmier: Oh, wow!

Lu: It was Bradley University in Illinois. They took down the job opening for an assistant diversity and inclusion director that required that they must be able to access non-ADA-compliant buildings.

It’s like, “First off your buildings should be compliant with the ADA, just period. But two, how do you not see the hypocrisy of asking for a D&I director, but making it totally inaccessible on your campus?” The irony is just mind-blowing.

Plasmier: I’m kind of speechless about that. I don’t know what to say. Chet, do you have any comment on that? That’s unbelievable.

Chet Cooper: It’s amazing they put it in writing.

Lu: I know, and it really shows. I think the body politic consortium, actually, were the ones who called them out saying, “This is such a classic example of how disability is often left out of the conversation on diversity and inclusion. It’s just an afterthought.” It shouldn’t be this way. They were pressured to take down their job listing, and I believe they removed the requirement from the posting in the end.

Plasmier: Wow!

Lu: Yeah! (laughs) It was like, wow, whoa, OK! The irony!

Cooper: Didn’t Newsday also do the same? After you called them out, they changed direction and said, “Oops, didn’t mean to do that”?

Lu: They did. Basically, I just kept subtweeting under that thread. A lot of people who follow me on Twitter are people in the disability community. Also other journalists, other reporters at various national news outlets who saw that and were like, “Wow, this is really messed up.” They were able to amplify it and bring attention to it. It was getting a bunch of tweets and some—within, like, a span of one or two hours.

It seemed like Newsday realized their mistake and were like, “Oh, no, we don’t want people calling us out for that. We need to go back and fix it.”

They did tweet me an apology saying that the job posting I originally referred to reporting on didn’t accurately reflect their requirements, and it was corrected. They were sorry for the error and any misunderstanding.

Lu: I forgot to mention earlier that those very same requirements were found on many of their other job postings. In fact, they took down the majority of their job postings. There were only about five left when I was checking them at one point.

Again, Newsday is a big company. They had only five left; and that shows how many of their job postings originally had that problematic language. I did also subtweet them after they took down that first job posting. I was like, “Hey, it’s great you took it down, but here are five more. Clearly these are not random.” (laughs)

Plasmier: It sounds systemic within the company. Do you see that a lot, or is this just something you happened to come across?

Lu: I know on ZipRecruiter® and various job posting websites, when I was doing research for this article, I did see that there were so many jobs?again, not just in media, but everything from secretary to finance roles, directors of sales? that had very specific mobility-related requirements.

Job Description — Essential job descrition need to lift 25 pounds
Newsday included in their Essential Job Description the need to lift 25 pounds

OK, one, it’s not healthy for somebody to sit for eight hours straight, just in general. But on top of that, you want us to be able to lift 25 pounds as well? And there are so many jobs where that’s actually not required. When are we ever going to have to lift 25-plus pounds? What is the point, really?

The point is that they need to be essential work requirements. In reality, yes, there are some jobs. If you want to be a firefighter or a construction worker, there are jobs where you do need to have certain—you need to be mobile to an extent to be able to do those jobs. But in so many cases that I saw when I was looking at jobs, all these requirements, like for a professor, for random jobs. They’re very clearly not essential requirements. And then the consequence is that people who might be perfectly capable and perfectly have all the requirements otherwise would feel discouraged from applying. And that contributes to lack of building inclusion, lack of diversity overall in the company or institution.

Plasmier: Right. Are they purposely trying to exclude? Is this something where they’re just copying and pasting?

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Lu: I can’t say for sure what the motive is. I don’t know. It might be that maybe they think that they’re being ADA-compliant by doing that, or maybe they think they’re being helpful by showing what the requirements, what you ideally have to be able to do. But the thing is that there are so many better ways of including language to get your point across about what the job is and what you need to be able to do without including exclusionary language, whether it’s intentional or not.

Instead of typing speed, if you’re a news outlet and you need this person to be writing X number of stories per day, you can put that instead. Honestly, I’m a really fast typer, but if you’re a slow reporter, then what’s the point? If you’re slow at writing and putting together stories, it doesn’t matter how fast you type anyway.

Lu: So I feel like companies need to be more mindful when they’re putting job listings together and think about what they want for that role and also what requirements are considered essential functions, rather than just random requirements that have nothing to do with it.

Plasmier: One more segue. I’m going to segue to the UAE, where you were presenting. What were you presenting on? Were you in Abu Dhabi?

Lu: Yes, it was Abu Dhabi. That was earlier this year. It was a wonderful trip. I really want to go back. It was in partnership with NYU Abu Dhabi and the U.S. State Department. I went to talk about disability reporting best practices. I covered media tropes, common pitfalls you see, how best to—everything from language, like how to talk about, how to report on people with disability, whether person-first versus identity-first language is better.

Wendy Lu Abu Dhabi
Wendy Lu speaking at NYU Abu Dhabi

The answer is, you should always double-check with the person you’re interviewing. And also showing that the disability community itself is complex and diverse and nuanced. Not everybody in our community feels exactly the same way about how they like to be identified.

Plasmier: Can you give us some examples of some of the differences with how some people like to be identified?

Lu: Yeah. For example, during my presentation I talked about person first, person’s identity, first language. An example of person-first language is “people with disabilities,” putting the person before the disability. Whereas with identity-first language, you would say “disabled person,” “autistic person.” The argument for the latter, identity-first language, is that a lot of people see a disability as a core part of their identity. It’s something they don’t want to shy away from. They see it as something they’re proud of.

I know a lot of people who prefer either person-first or identity-first, or they don’t care. Like me, I use both in the end. I think ultimately language is evolving. I know as a reporter I always ask someone, “How would you prefer to be identified?” For people in the deaf community, “Do you prefer the ‘d’ in ‘deaf’ to be capitalized or lower case?” Again, language is evolving, so these are really important conversations. The language is growing in the community even as a community is growing as well.

Plasmier: Awesome. Chet, do you have anything you’d like to comment on? When you were presenting, were you presenting back-to-back?

Lu: We presented on three different days. I gave my presentation first. For our individual presentations, we weren’t presenting together. But after our presentations, there was always some sort of fireside chat-type of format, or a panel situation, where Chet and I sat with the NYU Abu Dhabi directors. They gave us questions and we would bounce ideas off of each other. And then we gave people the opportunity to ask questions as well.

Cooper: That was a good way to present how we presented. Were you surprised—your talk was about language, and here a whole country had changed theirs—I was surprised?

Lu: Are you talking about “people of determination”?

Cooper: Yes.

Lu: No, I didn’t. I was surprised. I guess I was wondering how best to approach it because I know here in the U.S.—again, I’m very involved in the disability community like on social media and everything. We’re all about identity-first and person-first. Where in another country, they use a totally different term that I’ve never seen or heard of.

That was really interesting. I think it helped me realize that—reminded me to get out of my own bubble and see that we all have the same goal, but we might have a different name for it—meeting people where they’re at and realizing that we all want to empower the disability community and bring inclusion to society.

Plasmier: Were they trying to remove the word “disability” from the language, or just in addressing people or talking about people?

Lu: I know quite a few people there didn’t feel like “disability” was the best term, at least in their eyes. They felt like it was an inherently negative term, and they wanted to replace it with something more positive.

I think I already mentioned that a lot of people in the U.S. and also other countries where disability pride is very real. I know I personally am really proud to be disabled, and I don’t think it’s an inherently negative trait, obviously.

I thought it was really awesome that the entire country was trying to step up and change the fabric of their society and shift the way we talk about disability—while also honoring my own thoughts, honoring the fact that I love saying that I’m disabled and that I have a disability. It’s not something I would shy away from.

I also wouldn’t personally call myself a “person of determination.” But if someone else prefers that, it’s not on me to tell them, “No, you have to identify this way.”

NYU Abu Dhabi final day group including Wendy Lu, Chet Cooper, Tracy Lynne Lavin and Eric Hilgendorf
NYU Abu Dhabi final day — bottom row Wendy Lu in red, Top row Tracy Lynne Lavin, Chet Cooper, UAE reporter, and Eric Hilgendorf in suit jacket.

Plasmier: Where did you grow up? What was that like?

Lu: Oh, that’s a long response!

Plasmier: I bet it is. Whatever you’d like to share.

Lu: I was born in Georgia, and when I was about one year old we moved to Boston. My family and I were in Boston for about seven years and then we moved to North Carolina, where my family still lives. I went to UNC Chapel Hill for undergraduate. I spent the majority of my childhood and early adulthood in North Carolina.

Plasmier: What part? Around Chapel Hill?

Lu: Chapel Hill and Greensboro, NC. I had a nurse or one of my parents or another healthcare provider who was always with me. It wasn’t until halfway through college that I stopped needing the nurse and was on my own, shortly before I moved to New York. When I came to NY, I didn’t know anybody. I was going to graduate school on my own, fully independent. That was also a transition.

Cooper: How did you transition away from having to need a nurse?

Lu: Basically, I needed a home care nurse. I don’t think I mentioned my disability. I have a trach [tracheostomy] tube that helps me breathe. I’ve had it since I was born. I have bilateral vocal cord paralysis, which means that—it doesn’t really affect my voice, but it does affect my ability to breathe. I always had a nurse around who would—whenever there was an emergency, like the trach came out or whatever. It was a really huge emergency. They would provide trach care. I used to use the isomeric ball, like medical equipment to help me practice breathing. I needed someone to be there to help me bathe and eat and all those things.

As I grew up, I became more capable over time. I am mobile, so I’m able to do all those things for myself. At a certain point I was able to learn how to change my own trach tube and figure out what I need to do in the event of an emergency. I think it was my last year of college—oh, sorry. When I was in college, I also lived with my uncle and then my aunt. I had a nurse for the first couple of years of college. But while I was at college, I also had my aunt or my uncle who was always there with me as well. So it was transitioning from having a nurse to having a family member with me, to eventually not needing anybody at all.

It happened gradually at first. It used to be that I couldn’t go anywhere alone, whether to class or to the cafeteria when I was in school. But when I was in college, eventually I was like, “Hey, I’m going to campus now.” There would be a few hours when I didn’t have anybody with me, and then I would go back home to my aunt. Things like that.

Gradually I was able to take my first flight by myself. I think that was well into my twenties. Going to work the first time by myself. It was definitely gradually.

Cooper: Can I ask you a couple of personal questions?

Lu: Sure. I hope I can answer them.

Cooper: Is the trach affecting your eating and drinking? How does that work?

Lu: It’s funny you should ask because in addition to the trach I also have really bad acid reflux. I’ve got a narrow esophagus, and I have to rely on drinking a lot of water plus gravity to make sure that the food that I eat goes down okay. It is somewhat connected to my trach, but they are ultimately two separate issues. I have GERD, gastroesophageal reflux. The trach itself doesn’t affect my eating, but I have separate stomach issues as well.

Cooper: Ok Wendy now to an extremely personal question. Do you use emojis? If so, what emojis do you typically use?

Lu: (laughs) Oh, my God! I love the nerd emoji, the one with the glasses.


That one I use a lot. I think it’s really cute. It could be really innocent, but it could also be that you’re up to something. I would say that’s my favorite one, but there are so many to choose from!

Cooper: You’ve seen that Apple made a request and it was approved by Unicode to have emojis that are different symbols for disabilities?

Lu: Yeah, I did see that!

Cooper: Will you be using any of them?

Lu: That’s a good question. I don’t know if they’ll have a tracheostomy one. I kind of doubt it, to be honest. A lot of times when people think of disability, they think of someone with a wheelchair, with a hearing aid, being blind. So having a trach, specifically, I would be so excited if they did have it, but I don’t know if they will.

Cooper: Not in this round, they won’t.

Lu: The disability community is so diverse and so vast, there are so many different types of disability. Whether they’re physical or mental, intellectual versus developmental, visible versus invisible, there are so many different kinds of disabilities. So it’s hard to be like, “OK, this is the symbol we’ll use to represent disability now.”

It’s really interesting. There are literally endless possibilities. But regardless, even if they don’t have a trach tube while putting these emojis out, they’re at least catching up with us and realizing, “Oh, we need to be thinking about disability more.” Of course, we need emojis that represent different disabilities that people have!

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