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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