Yarelbys Túa is a Venezuelan model and influencer whose career has grown in two short years to the heights modeling for an adaptive line at JC Penney in New York Fashion Week, and most recently, shooting a campaign for Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive. 

However, when she was diagnosed with bone cancer at 14, Túa abandoned her dreams of becoming a performer and model. She spent much of her youth being treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery for sarcoma, a type of cancer that was located in her rib bones. At 16, after her radiation treatment ended, Túa developed inflammation in her spinal cord. The inflammation developed into nerve damage that left her with a disability in her leg that didn’t allow her to walk without a scooter or cane. 

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Currently, she cannot flex her foot upwards and her right leg is weaker than the left. She can’t carry her full weight for extended periods of time.

Túa’s spirit was tested — after her successful battle with cancer, she had to undergo physical therapy and learn to walk again. With no disabled community or friendships to lean on and never being exposed to successful media or entertainment figures who were also differently-abled, she became discouraged.  

In an interview with mitú, Túa vividly described the next few years of her life as “living in survival mode.” 

Túa knew it was time to go back to school, attempt to live a normal life again and find a new career to pursue in order to provide for herself. Due directly to her disability, she had trouble settling into a college major. Her original plan to study engineering was derailed when counselors, faculty, and family suggested she pursue a different career path because the engineering campus at the university was too far from her home and facilities were infra-structurally inaccessible. 

She then opted to major in psychology, but the commute became a struggle since public transit wasn’t reliable nor located close enough to the campus for someone with walking disabilities. Realizing this, it dawned on Túa that college in Venezuela would not work for her.  

Courtesy: Greg Morris

Seven years ago, at the age of 18, Túa moved to Orlando, Florida with her sister, carrying not much more than living essentials and ambition.

Eventually, Túa found a job selling tickets to major theme parks in Orlando and then moved on to a new role as a front desk attendant at a gym in order to make time for creative pursuits.

Modeling opportunities came to her through her friendships. One friend who works at a modeling agency approached Túa with an opportunity with a brand that was in search of a differently-abled model. Soon after, a photographer friend approached her asking to use her as a model in order to update their portfolio. This prompted Túa to build one of her own and teach herself more about social media influencing. “I took a course on social media too just because I wanted to learn how the industry worked and I started researching more about influencing as well as the push for representation in media and equal rights for disabled people.”

Part of Túa’s journey of unlearning ableism was being able to actually experience it through fashion, recounting the ease with which she is able to dress herself with adaptive clothing. “What a full circle moment that I was able to work with them, which was something I never thought I’d be able to do.” 

Courtesy: Mister Hindi

Like most immigrants, Túa prefers to move as stealthily as she can. “I love sharing my story…but when you go into my profiles, I don’t have anything that indicates that I’m Venezuelan because I’m terrified people will say ‘no’ to me because of it… I go as neutral as I can until I’m confirmed for an opportunity and then I will speak up.”

Túa described the awkwardness she was — and still is — met with when it comes to her disability. While acknowledging that the U.S. isn’t the model example of representation and accessibility, it’s still much better than the conditions she left in Venezuela. “I feel like these topics need to be discussed more in Latin media. There’s so much ableism back home, and even the word ‘disabled’ is very taboo.”

Courtesy: Yarelbys Túa

The lack of awareness around the needs of disabled people, coupled with a deeply religious culture, often makes discussing her disability uncomfortable for Túa. “I grew up Catholic, so something that I get all the time is people back home always want to pray for my disability. It’s a sensitive topic to speak about, but I try to explain that a disability isn’t something to be cured, it’s not an injury, it’s something that I live with. It’s a fine line between not wanting to confront people but also educating them and telling them it’s not okay to confront a stranger and tell them you’ll pray for them,” she says. Túa described the misconception that being disabled is a curse, which comes up often.

“People think that we just want to be out of it, but I see it as a part of who I am. So rather than wanting to be changed, I want to be accepted.”

Yarelbys Túa

Her goal of becoming a public advocate and speaker on ADA Compliance reform and inclusivity is one she’s already begun.

In a recent viral Instagram video posted by journalist Sergio Novelli, she shares her personal journey and mission in an audition tape for Sports Illustrated.

Túa’s passion, drive, and belief in herself shine as she describes herself throughout the video and it’s those same attributes that have allowed her to push her dreams to new heights. “There’s so many uphill battles and the ways the people perceive me just because I walk differently, they sometimes don’t give you the chance to be more than your disability,” says Túa.

She hopes to grow her modeling career and continue to use her platform to inform as many people as possible. Whether it be strangers on the internet, fashion brands, or even help influence government policy, Túa hopes to become an advocate and influence change that brings more opportunities, creates infra-structurally sound environments, and normalizes day-to-day life for the differently-abled community.