Ausnew Home Care | Lily is legally blind, but it doesn't slow her down

Lily is legally blind, but it doesn't slow her down as a runner or a filmmaker

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Lily Mitchell is brimming with ideas.

Her enthusiasm bubbles when she talks about her plans for the future.

"I'd love to create a children's show which kids with disabilities can feel a part of," she said.

The 25-year-old is a filmmaker and competitive sprinter.

She is also legally blind.

"I'd like to find ways to make the film industry more accessible for talent and crew who are differently abled.

A blonde lady smiles as she holds a fluffy microphone. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
Walk past her on the street and you'd likely never know Lily has a visual impairment.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

Ms Mitchell has an eye condition called cone rod dystrophy, which was diagnosed when she was 11.

"It affects my retina — that means that the light that travels through those cells is disrupted when it gets sent to my brain," she said.

"I have blind spots primarily in my frontal vision that extends out to my peripheral vision.

"It's like having a cobweb or TV static over the front of my eyes."

Lily uses a mobile phone to help with her sound gear
Lily says she fell into sound work for film.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

But don't pity her or treat her like she's some type of superhero for her achievements.

"When people think it's astounding that someone like me can get to that stage – it's nice, but it creates a bit of pressure and a bit of a heroic mentality around disabled people," Ms Mitchell said.

"I think it's a little unrealistic to put disabled people on a pedestal on one hand, but on the other hand have people not expecting me to get far or even thinking of me in a way that's equal."

Film provided an escape, then a passion

A childhood love of Harry Potter movies led Lily to film school at Griffith University, where she completed a degree and now specialises in audio production.

"I kind of fell into sound … it might have been because I wasn't too good at finding focus on the camera," she said with a smile.

Lily Mitchell uses her mobile phone as a magnifier
Lily uses her mobile phone to help read the dials on her sound equipment.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

She's worked on multiple projects, some of which are doing the rounds of the film festival circuit.

"I was diagnosed just before I started high school, so film really helped me just kind of escape — I got very obsessive about how it was made.

"That's why I've followed that passion to create stories and worlds for people like me to help them escape, or learn, grow, or reflect."

YOUTUBELily is legally blind, but it doesn't slow her down as a runner or a filmmaker.

One of her first projects was a video for university students.

"I wanted to try and help other students with disabilities like myself who might be struggling to communicate their needs or be on the receiving end of a bit of discrimination from teaching staff from, maybe ignorance or misunderstanding, so I created this awareness promo," she said.

Lily Mitchell editing a sound recording on her computer
Even sound editing has a critical visual component.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

Lily's talent on the athletics track has taken her to the national championships.

"Getting to the nationals was something I really prided myself on," she said.

But it was also athletics that created an enormous identity crisis and feelings of unworthiness.

While Lily grew up in a sporty family, she never considered running would take her far until she started losing her sight and it was suggested that she become involved in para-athletics.

A crouches on a running track.
Lily lost confidence when she ran into people who stepped in front of her on the track.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

Pretty soon she bought into the perception that being a Paralympian was the best thing a person with a disability could be.

"It kind of got drilled into me that the most success — well that's how I interpreted it — the most success that I could create for myself and give to others was being a Paralympian," she said.

"I felt a lot of pressure over the years, upholding that identity of myself.

"I thought that was the only success I could have in life, and I also thought that if I achieve anything less than being a Paralympian, it wasn't good enough."

Lily Mitchell sits on a running track tying her shoes
Lily sees nothing in front of her when she runs.(ABC News: Sally Eeles)

The weight of her own expectations, and what she believed to be society's expectations, became too much early last year.

"These pressures were just building, and I hit that metaphorical brick wall," she said.

That "brick wall" came in the shape of two people who inadvertently stepped onto the athletics track in front of Lily while she was training.

She could not see them and slammed into them.

"When I run, I run straight into my blind spot," she said.

Lily Mitchell and her training partner Jamie Howell
Lily and her deaf training partner Jamie Howell act as each other's eyes and ears.(ABC News: Sally Eeles)

While no-one was badly hurt, Lily's confidence and fragile ego were shattered.

"One of my biggest fears was always running into someone — I had such a fear of causing someone else pain because of my visual impairment," she said.

It sent her into a downward spiral and she retreated from the track and from the world.

Creating awareness 

As Australia went into its first COVID-19 lockdown last year, Lily was grieving the loss of the person she thought she had to be.

With therapy and nurturing from loved ones, she started building herself a new identity — it took a year.

"I finally figured out that I don't have to be anything for anyone," she said.

"Everyone has value — no matter what they're going through and who they are. And therefore no matter what I do in life — whatever I choose to do — there's value in it."

A man with medium length hair smiles at camera.
Lily's partner, Ramin Karimi.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

She has recently moved into a unit at Mount Gravatt in Brisbane's south with her partner, videographer Ramin Karimi.

The pair met on a shoot a couple of years ago and are each other's staunchest allies.

Ramin said he had gone through discrimination based on his culture and background.

"I know it doesn't feel good, so it allows me to understand — it's probably worse for her because she's living through it every day," he said.

Lily said she had "so much appreciation, love and admiration for Ramin".

"I'm grateful for the love and support of him and my family and friends," she said.

Lily Mitchell and her partner Ramin Karimi in Lily's study at home
Lily says Ramin didn't realise she was blind when they first met.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

They sit on the couch together and laugh as Ramin strums a guitar and serenades her with an improvised ditty.

"Lily you're so silly because you eat too much chilli," he sings.

Having a vision impairment is just part of who Lily is.

It gives her an insight into a world that able-bodied people may never experience, but one that she is determined to make them know exists.

"It's definitely something that people can be more aware of and be more open to learning about," she said.

"As someone who is in filmmaking, I really want to create awareness and representation so that there are things on offer for people who may misunderstand or perpetuate stereotypes that they naturally navigate towards."

Back on the track

Lily's now back on the track at the Queensland Sport and Athletics Centre, but this time it is for fitness not competition.

Her childhood training mate, Jamie Howell, is by her side.

Two women smile at each other on a running track.
Lily Mitchell and Jamie Howell have been training partners since childhood.(ABC News: Sally Eeles )

Jamie, who has represented Australia at the Deaflympics, is profoundly deaf but uses a cochlear implant to access speech and sound.

"We train together, we motivate each other and push each other," Jamie said.

"Sometimes I may have to give the occasional prompt if there's a hurdle in the way.

"So I'm definitely her eyes, but she's my ears, and it works well for us." 

Lily's disability also provides material for her self-deprecating sense of humour.

She laughs as she recalls her first day of film school.

Lily Mitchell on the starting line
Lily Mitchell is back on the track now after overcoming a nightmare collision that shattered her confidence.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

"They're like, 'You will have to have a driver's licence by the end of this degree', and I thought 'LOL! That's impossible.'"

While she jokes, things other people take for granted can take her a little more time and effort.

Turning up on a film set can be confronting, when you can't really see where you are.

"Like how do I get into a building? Often I'm walking around going is that the front door or am I going to walk into a stranger's home?" she said, laughing.

But Lily has learned to adapt for herself.

For instance, she uses the zoom feature on her smart phone's camera to increase the size of print that she needs to read.

She'll lean close to the computer monitor to make out images on the screen.

But walk past her on the street and you'd likely never know Lily has a visual impairment.

"I have kind of trained myself to adapt and look as normal as possible because of the way I have been treated," she said.

Even her partner Ramin didn't realise at first.

"It just opened my eyes to how ignorant some people were — including myself — I didn't know much about the disabled community," he said.

'An undercover agent in the able-bodied community'

Lily has an invisible disability, which can be good and bad.

When people aren't aware of her impairment, they treat Lily just like everyone else.

Lily and Ramin
Lily and her partner Ramin met on a shoot a couple of years ago.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

That's good, but it also means people don't understand why she may have difficulty or take longer carrying out a task than others would.

However, when her disability is visible, it can be worse.

"I can almost be an undercover agent in the able-bodied community one day and then really be treated quite differently the next," Lily said.

"The other day I was with a support worker who had a lanyard which stated that she was a support worker and the lady at the check-out didn't refer to me or speak to me even though I was buying my own groceries, which I often do on my own." 

Lily's mission is to increase awareness and inclusivity of people with different abilities.

It all starts with a little understanding.

"I'd like to be treated with mutual respect and less judgement," she said.

"Discrimination will only change when the ableist society willingly takes a step back, and reflects on false perceptions and stereotypes," she said.

"I'd like to see more tolerance, patience and openness to understanding.

"That would be the most helpful for creating conversations around fundamental change towards the acceptance of people with disabilities."


Source: ABC

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