Darren Fittler: Blind Courage

by Aidan Devine11 Aug 2014
Darren FittlerDarren Fittler’s path from teen struggling with impending blindness to obstacle course extraordinaire proves the endless possibilities for lawyers who aren’t afraid to back away from a challenge

All of his career, Darren Fittler has been bending people’s conceptions of the world. Then he has shattered them.

On first encounter over the phone or electronically, the Gilbert + Tobin lawyer strikes most as a talented but profoundly ordinary lawyer. That impression has much to do with the unremarkable way he does his job. He returns client emails promptly and has the analytical skills to comb through documents as quickly as the best lawyers.

It is only when clients meet Fittler in person that they realise what sets him apart. Fittler, despite all the tasks he can perform, is blind.

Even more remarkable is what he does outside of practice. Drawing parallels with the Marvel character Daredevil – blind lawyer by day, death-defying superhero by night – Fittler has become the first blind person in the world to compete in an array of high-octane, adrenaline-heavy obstacle courses.

The difference is that Fittler’s story is no comic book fantasy. The lawyer’s path from teen struggling with impending blindness to rainmaker in one of Australia’s most prominent firms is as inspiring as it is heart-breaking.

“I grew up in a country town just west of Coffs Harbour. I was diagnosed with my condition at age five and began gradually losing my sight. By the time I was 13 and heading into a mainstream high school, it had mostly gone,” Fittler says.

He adds that growing up as the only blind student at a school of more than 1,000 pupils was a hardening experience. Frequently bullied and unable to access a lot of the same learning materials as other students, his high-school experience was more challenging than most.

“I look back on those years at public school and I think they have helped me build the resilience I have now,” Fittler says. It was at high school that Fittler began to slowly develop the attitude that has been driving his life since then. “My philosophy is that whatever obstacle comes to you, find a way. You go around things and find a way to succeed. You don’t give up.”

After finishing high school, Fittler went to university with the intention of doing a combined degree in law and social work but ended up studying only for the social work degree. He finished this in 1996 and, after a stint travelling, was employed as a social worker.

A few years later he decided to set his mind to studying law again and resolved to graduate in law as soon as possible. After two years of summer school and intensive courses, he eventually became qualified as a lawyer, joining Gilbert + Tobin in 2004. At first he was rotated around the firm, gaining experience in a number of corporate practice areas. This was followed by a few years in the firm’s pro bono team, which inspired Fittler to eventually move to Gilbert + Tobin’s department specialising in charity law, which he now leads.

Throughout this time, Fittler says he became aware of his slipping fitness levels. “I was sitting at my desk and realised that I used to be Fittler, and that if I didn’t change something I would wake up at age 40, wondering what I am doing with myself.”

Motivated to hit the gym, Fittler hired a personal trainer, and what started out as once-a-week sessions eventually evolved into three-times-a-week workouts. He tried CrossFit training for a while and a range of other exercise programs until an idea struck him.

“I had heard that the Tough Mudder obstacle course was coming up,” Fittler recalls. “I said to my personal trainer, Dirk, ‘We’re going to do it’. We pulled together a team of four and competed. Later it turned out that I was the first blind person to ever complete Tough Mudder.”

Following the success of his Tough Mudder experience, Fittler has since entered other obstacle course races, including the Spartan Race, which he claims is a lot more gruelling because, unlike Tough Mudder, it is timed and participants face penalties for failing at obstacles.

“One of the obstacles was to throw a spear at a bale of hay. Well, of course I missed, so I had to do 30 burpees.”

Fittler explains that teamwork helps him get through the races. “I depend on my teammates when running from one obstacle to another. I usually just grab onto a mate’s arm and we run together. Obstacles I have to do solo. Leopard-crawling through 100m of barb wire, there’s no teamwork there. I usually ask people for a description of the obstacle and try work out how to do it.”

While Fittler may have started doing obstacle courses as a way to keep fit, his penchant for endurance activities is hardly out of character, considering that he qualified for the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. He wasn’t able to compete for financial reasons but managed to win in a much bigger way. “The night the plane left to Atlanta I went on a pub crawl at my university. That’s where I met my wife. That was 18 years ago.”

Fittler says that, like any marriage, his requires a certain amount of give and take, but the challenges are compounded by his disability.

“I do the hard work in the garden and deal with the technical dramas, like helping our kids put things together, but there’s just a little more work than normal for her. She has to help me with other things, like telling me whether I’ve picked out the shirts I think I have chosen. She reads our printed mail.”

His advice to other people who feel they are facing insurmountable obstacles is to never underestimate what can be achieved in the long term. It is this thinking that has helped him gain the confidence to compete in gruelling physical challenges and, more importantly, compete on an equal footing with other lawyers.

“Most people overestimate what can be done in a year, but they underestimate what can be done in 10. Don’t expect things to happen immediately, but if you take an innovative approach, they come in time.”

This feature is from NZ Lawyer's July issue #6.2. Download the whole issue to read more.