Zuly Sanguino was born without limbs and went on to endure horrific bullying at school over her disability. She felt so low that at one point she nearly took her own life.
But incredibly the pretty 25-year-old has overcome all her obstacles and not only lives a normal life with minimal nursing care, but earns a living as an inspirational speaker, helping thousands of other disadvantaged people.
‘I don’t have any arms or legs, but I won’t let that hold me back,’ says Zuly, who lives in Bogota, Colombia. ‘Growing up was hard and I was bullied at school. I was called an alien and it really hurt me.
‘I went through some dark times and even contemplated suicide. But my friends and family pulled me through and now I give motivational talks at businesses, prisons and schools,’ she continues. ‘I speak to children who are bullied, or have disabilities, to show them having physical or mental limitations doesn’t have to hold you back. I want to show people you can do anything if you put your mind to it.’
Zuly was born with Tetra-amelia syndrome, an extremely rare genetic condition that results in the limbs not developing properly in the womb.
Her three brothers and two sisters are unaffected by the condition.
Although shocked by her daughter’s disability, her mother, Guillermina, 57, who now works as her assistant, was determined to help her be independent.
Zuly – whose dad sadly committed suicide when she was 2 – says: ‘At first people would carry me everywhere or I’d roll, but eventually I managed to stand up on my own and tried to walk by propping myself up with my stumps.
‘Mum taught me to do basic things like making the bed, brushing my teeth and changing clothes, using my mouth and stumps to grip things. She wanted me to do everything an able-bodied person can.’
What a cracking smile!
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But although her home life was happy, school was a different story. ‘I started to realise I was different to other children aged 6,’ recalls Zuly. ‘Suddenly I noticed they could run and I couldn’t. I asked Mum why I was different. She told me I was no more different than anybody else and my disability didn’t have to hold me back.’
But Zuly soon became a target for bullies: ‘Children called me alien and hit me, sometimes they’d take my snacks. It was horrible. I left school when I was 6 and joined another school.’
But Zuly struggled with her disability and at 15 she hit rock-bottom.
‘I’d go to sleep at night wishing I could just wake up and be like everyone else,’ says Zuly. ‘I felt ostracized at school and didn’t have any friends. I thought there was no hope for me. Mum tried to keep my spirits up but I felt so low.’
Shockingly, Zuly felt so distressed she even contemplated suicide at 15.
‘I climbed up to the fourth floor of our building and was going to jump,’ she says. ‘Thankfully Mum came and found me just before I did. She was so upset things had got so bad. She hugged me and told me everything would be alright. She told me I would go on to shine and show other people you can live a normal, happy life with a disability.’
It was the turning point for Zuly, who left school at 18 and studied art at college.
‘I realised I’d spent too long letting my disability get me down and I had so much to live for. Gradually, with Mum’s support, I began to feel more positive and got involved with a local church, where the pastor asked me if I would like to join him on community visits as an inspirational speaker,’ says Zuly.
‘My first talk was speaking to 400 college students and parents about bullying in schools.
‘I was really nervous so Mum came with me for support. But halfway through I began to cry because it was so painful reliving what I’ve been through. But everyone started clapping and it gave me the strength to keep going.’
Her inspirational story was soon picked up by the media and broadcast across Colombia. She now makes regular TV and radio appearances.
Zuly – who lives with her mother in a ground-floor apartment – leads an active life and is like any other 25-year-old girl. She says: ‘I can put make-up on using adjustable straps that hold my blusher and mascara in place. I need a wheelchair for longer distances but I enjoy going out and socialising with my friends.’
As for the future, Zuly hopes to take her motivational speaking abroad and open an orphanage.
She says: ‘I’m proof you don’t have to let a disability hold you back. I went through such a dark time but now I’m in a good place and it’s given me a sense of purpose helping other people.’