Lakeland documentary spotlights people overcoming disabilities

By Rick Elmhorst, Anchor/Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, June 02, 2016, 6:14 PM EDT

A Lakeland woman's loving relationship with her special needs sister prompted her to produce a documentary and start a non-profit organization.

  • Lakeland documentary is about people living with disabilities
  • Kirsti Mutz's sister Emma, who has Down Syndrome, has excelled in spite of disability
  • Mutz, 20, inspired by Emma to produce film, start non-profit

20-year-old Kirsti Mutz’s sister Emma, 16, has Down Syndrome.

Kirsti grew up performing in musical theater, and one day her mother decided that Emma should try out for a musical, too. Kirsti told her mother she didn't think that was a good idea.

To put it plainly: Kirsti didn't think Emma could do it. As much as she loved her sister, she admits she had low expectations of what she could achieve.

"My mom had her audition and she got in the show and she performed amazingly and blew my expectations out of the water," said Kirsti.

That experience revolutionized the way Kirsti thought about her sister. After that, she worked for more than a year producing a documentary called "People Like Us."

It features the stories of a half-dozen local residents, including Emma, who have intellectual and physical disabilities. The documentary examines the people with disabilities as having great aspirations for themselves.

In the film, Emma and her peers also realize they face great challenges.

"Hearing them talk about their disabilities started to make [me] respect them on an even deeper level because all of us have aspirations," said Kirsti. "All of us want to achieve something."

Since debuting the documentary a few months ago, Kirsti has traveled to China to present the movie to people who either live or work with others who have intellectual disabilities.

"This one girl began to cry and began to say 'I didn't know,'” said Kirsti, “'I didn't know that people could succeed with disabilities.'"

Kirsti has started a non-profit with the same name as the documentary. She hopes to have groups screen the film, and then to facilitate discussions afterwards. The main idea is to raise expectations for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.