Taking the Spotlight: A Conversation with Journalist Wendy Lu – Meera Raman
FEBRUARY 1, 2021
Wendy Lu was destined to become a writer. “I have always wanted to be a journalist,” she said over Zoom, with a smile on her face. “I was on the newspaper back in high school and middle school and before that, when I was very little, I created my own neighbourhood newspaper. It was just something that I always wanted to do, mainly because I loved writing.”
Lu seemingly paved her own way in becoming a writer. In a field that is dominated by white, able-bodied men, she is anything but. Lu’s writing has brought a voice and genuine representation to an often silenced community. Just years after her neighbourhood newspaper days, Lu—now a New York City-based editor and reporter at the Huffington Post—finds her realized dream at her fingertips. But how, in a working environment controlled by people so different from herself, did she manage to get to where she is?
Lu attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn an undergraduate degree in journalism, and went on to get her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. It was in New York City that Lu discovered her beat.
“I have become very passionate about writing on disability politics and culture because I am a disabled person,” Lu said. “It is something that is very important to me both personally and professionally.”
Lu is an Asian-American writer with a tracheal tube. Her personal identity as a disabled woman of colour has motivated her to write stories that speak to and advocate for the communities that do not traditionally get the spotlight.
After she graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, it was at Bustle, an online millennial news website, that Lu was asked to write a piece about her experience being disabled. “I realized those stories that I did about disability got the most traction and there was a lot of interest,” she said. “That showed me that there are a lot of people that felt like they could resonate with my story.”
Lu saw this gap in reporting when it came to disability, especially disabled women of colour. This is where her passion and drive originated. “I have become very passionate about shining a light on stories and on communities that are typically either underreported or when they are in the media, inaccurately reported,” Lu explained.
The New York City-based writer is no stranger to the lack of diversity in mainstream media, which is reflected in the newsroom. Lu emphasized the fact that journalists uphold values of being unbiased and objective, but this objectivity is skewed when what is considered the norm is based on white, cis, able-bodied men. “I want to be a part of changing that,” Lu said, “[by] showing that disabled people, especially disabled women of colour, should be a part of that norm. We have always been here, but I want to help normalize those stories.”
Lu has brought this goal to the Huffington Post, where she has worked since October 2018. This year, she pitched the idea of the publication organizing its first ever Disability Pride package. “I pitched it and I didn’t know if it was going to happen for a long time. I kept following up and finally they approved it, so I started getting right to work,” she said.
The writer told me that the theme of the package was about the disability rights movement as it is today. While the movement has been active for decades, there were so many factors about 2020 that emphasized a focus on disability rights.
For example, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a gap in stories about how people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by and at risk of dying from the virus. Additionally, there was the 2020 election. According to Lu, this election was a huge win in terms of progress for disability rights. “Disability was brought up on the debate stage and talked about as a real issue, a real community that matters to the public,” she said.
The United States’ reckoning with racism and white supremacy has also involved disability rights. In a 2020 Time article, advocates for both racial justice and disability rights agreed that Black disabled Americans are especially at risk of police brutality. “So, there were all these things that culminated into the fact that we can’t afford to forgo disability any longer,” Lu said. “That was the approach we took to our package.”
Included in the New York Times’ Disability Pride Package is a piece Lu wrote about how equity is actually lost when companies only hire people with disabilities. “This kind of turned this hiring strategy on its head,” Lu told me. “Oftentimes disabled people get pigeon-holed into those industries, such as tech or retail,” she explained. “It also gives companies a pat on the back for something that is supposed to be the norm—that people with disabilities are hired. This isn’t something that should be special. We deserve to be actors, politicians, and whatever career we want to [pursue].”
I asked Lu what advice she had for journalists who want to cover topics such as disability politics and gender. “One thing that is really important to remember is that disability is not just a healthcare topic,” she said. Lu emphasized the fact that disabled people do not just exist within the medical sphere. Disability politics touch every facet of our lives, from education to politics to pop culture. “Every story has a disability angle,” Lu said. “There are so many ideas out there that it is endless. I think that is a big hurdle when you are in newsrooms.”
The writer also stressed that when a journalist is interviewing someone, they should ask how their subject prefers to identify. “Make it easy for them,” Lu said. “‘How do you spell the name of your disability? Do you capitalize the ‘d’ in deaf or not?’ Don’t make assumptions. Even though I have a trach tube and I am disabled, I don’t know what it’s like to have every other disability.”
Lu goes into every story knowing that she is there to learn and challenge her own preconceived notions. “It is my turn to listen to people share their stories because they are trusting me,” she said.
It is because of journalists like Lu that people who are traditionally pushed to the margins are finally getting the spotlight. Lu’s destiny to become a writer stretches beyond words on a page. Her words are a rallying call for disability justice and activism that are heard by many across the world. Seeing the impact that just one person can make on a community, it is now up to the news industry to diversify the voices it chooses to amplify. Communities deserve to be accurately represented in the media, and that starts with publications hiring outside of the white, male, able-bodied norm.
“We need more coverage of disability as a whole,” Lu shared as we ended the call.
Follow Wendy Lu’s work on her social media accounts: