As we recognize the importance of Disability Awareness Month, Keith Giddens shares the story of his son Sammy. Living with autism and a light to those around him, Sammy inspires us to be more inclusive of everyone. As a father to a son with a disability, Keith shares about lessons learned from Sammy and how we can all be more inclusive in the workplace. Keith is a Tax Market Leader in the Tysons, Virginia office and member of the DHG Executive Committee.
AGH: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of our DHG podcast series. I’m Alice Grey Harrison, your host and I love this venue because we get to hear about the things that matter the most to us. Those are flexibility, careers and of course, stories about our people. At DHG, we truly strive to be a great place to work for all, for everyone and I see this in action each and every day. I’m fortunate enough to work with a lot of people across the firm so I get to see a lot of what goes on.
One of the areas that we’ve really been focusing on is inclusion and diversity, and that is having an inclusive environment for all, for everyone. I was recently on our DHG blog and saw that nearly 20% of our population lives with a disability. To define a disability — that means a physical or mental impairment that affects one or more daily life activities in a substantial way, and I just was floored by that. What that told me is there are likely people that I work with who have disabilities that I may not even physically be able to see.
When I thought about how we could shed a light on living with disabilities, I thought about my friend and colleague Keith Giddens whose son Sammy lives with disabilities. Keith is a tax partner and one of the greatest storytellers that you’ll ever meet so no pressure. I knew he would be a great person to interview and help us understand on a deeper level - what it means to live with someone with a disability or special needs.
KG: Thank you, Alice Grey and it’s just a pleasure to be here, and I appreciate the firm and you shedding light on Disability Awareness Month and giving me the opportunity to be here. It is a little bit of significant pressure on the greatest storyteller. I’m not sure I can live up to that today, but I will do my best.
AGH: Okay, maybe stories for another time over a cup of coffee if you run into Keith in the office, but let’s begin about talking about your family. Can you tell us a little bit about your family? I know that Sammy is adopted, so the adoption journey and then share with us about his needs?
KG: Yeah, absolutely. I have two children, Sammy who you mentioned who has just turned ten and Nellie Cate who is five. Sammy was actually adopted from China while we were living overseas several years ago. We fell in love with him and made the journey back across to United States and then Nellie Cate is five - so biological child, neuro-typical developed with no disabilities.
Sammy, as you mentioned has had a number of challenges in his life. Initially we were only aware of some physical limitations. He had cleft lip, he had cleft palate, and he also had a number of other physical limitations – most of which we believe have been corrected through surgeries. So far in his life right now, he’s had 13 surgeries; we know we have a couple of more to go, mostly which would be cosmetic at this stage.
However, as some of his peers began to develop quicker than him, we took notice of that, and we just didn’t have access to the greatest medical care while living overseas at the time and mostly because of him, we looked to repatriate back to the U.S. When we got here, we spent a few weeks at the Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill in North Carolina where Sammy was officially diagnosed with autism and at that time, he was about two and a half and really since that time, that has been the key focus for him and his well-being versus some of his other challenges. It’s been mostly on the mental side, struggling with autism and all that it entails.
AGH: Wow, so with that being said, I know there must be millions of considerations that you take in each and every day to make it a safe and happy environment. I know we were at the partner meeting in Disney a couple of years ago, and we were doing some special things because you were our emcee, and I know that in our minds, we had to consider things for Sammy.
Can you tell us a little a bit about the things that you do have to consider and will this always be considerations for him?
KG: It’s going to be challenging Alice Grey, and there’s a saying in the autism community that if you know one child with autism then you know one child with autism. The spectrum is very big and there are children and adults who fall on a variety of places on that spectrum and as you’re raising your child and working with him and his doctors and the team is trying to figure out where exactly your child may be on that spectrum.
Because things that some people with autism have challenges with, others don’t. Sometimes they excel in those other items. It’s very unfortunate that we don’t have a standard plan of care such as these are the exact things that we need to tackle.
So for Sammy personally, some of these challenges change over time. Some have been a little bit constant. He does have some sensory issues to certain sounds as well as certain lights where for one reason or another, he may make a decision. We’re not going in that place, that restaurant, whatever it may be because of something that we may not hear or see at all.
But make no mistake, we’ve made notes. We will not be going to Joe’s Tavern to eat lunch anymore or wherever the place may be and so sensory is a big thing. He’s not as stringent on having a schedule. He’s very flexible and adaptable so that’s a positive with him. The other thing I would say is he was not verbal until about six years old.
His verbal ability even now is limited and so just communication to make sure things such as do we really understand what his needs are? Is he able to communicate what they are and can he comprehend or is it just a communication issue and some of those were coming to light. He’s getting a little bit older, but I would say, sensory and communication are two key items and the third would probably be just social awareness, which he doesn’t have that social awareness intact.
He doesn’t really necessarily have a filter. He may say things that are on top of his mind, and I can promise you after knowing him — are met with pure innocence. But to him, he’s just going to come out, and he may not know what those words may be. Those are the focuses that we have.
AGH: As a father of a child with disabilities, you’re probably really hyper-sensitive to how people with disabilities are treated. From your perspective, what are ways that people can be more inclusive in the workplace?
KG: Great question. You know to be honest, before having Sammy I am not sure I would have known as much. He has taught me a lot of things such as patience. Patience is big thing, and I think that is something that we need in the workplace. Most people with a disability whether that would be physical or mental, need perhaps a little bit more patience on certain items and you know, we can sometimes offend people because of moving a little bit too quickly.
Or thinking too quickly, acting too quickly without having the patience to say, “Hey is this impacting them? Is this offending them? Is this making their life a little bit more difficult unknowingly?” So patience is one and then the second I would say is inclusivity. You know, Matt Snow mentioned that at the partner meeting this year in Nashville in talking about some of our I&D efforts, and he mentioned if it was our child who was being left out and that resonated with me. I don't think I put that into the workplace per se.
I live it every day with my child as he goes to school, and I think about whether or not he’s going to be included or if anyone will sit with him at the lunch table and so I thought to myself, whatever it may be just in the workplace not only with disabilities but other inclusion and diversity efforts. Being inclusive is huge and reaching out to people – that getting a little bit outside of your norm and including them in what you do.
AGH: Those are great pieces of advice, and I have thought about what Matt said several times since he mentioned it at the partner meeting. Just a minute ago, you mentioned that you’ve learned a lot from Sammy. I can’t help but ask - what is a great lesson? And I must say, this is like any other child. I learned lessons from my crazy little five year-old every day but what would you say is a great lesson that you have learned from him?
KG: Oh yeah, that is a fantastic follow up question, and I would say that I could probably have a new answer for you as most parents could in any given time. Right off with this one I would say number one would be his inability to judge a book by its cover. I would say he doesn’t care if you are big or small, black or white, rich or poor. He doesn’t care what clothes you wear. He doesn’t care what car you drive. If he likes you, he likes you because you’re kind and because he feels comfortable. You make him happy; none of these material things matter and sometimes I think to myself, I would love to have that same lens because sometimes we unconsciously begin to “judge a book by its cover,” and he just doesn’t have that human flaw that most of us have.
The second thing I would say is you can do a lot more sometimes with no voice than you can with a voice. As I mentioned, he didn’t speak until he was six years old and as you mentioned, I was an emcee – I would never shy away from using my voice. The impact that he’s had on my life and everyone’s life that he has been a part of has been way more significant than anything that I can do with a voice. I just have to look at him, and I am in awe sometimes of what he’s been able to achieve. He may not really realize it yet as he’s, for example, the key piece of this podcast.
AGH: Yeah that’s great. I know that you mentioned for autism, there isn’t just one clear path, one clear diagnosis. So probably predicting the future may be a little challenging but as Sammy gets older, whether he is able to enter the work force or live alone or be independent, what would you say is your hope for him?
KG: For us we would say, him gaining as much independence as he can. Right now his ability to enter the workforce is a little bit still up in the air. He is still younger, and he is still continuing to make progress. It would be unlikely in today’s environment that he may build a secure full-time employment but there are many organizations for example, Delta Airlines has come out with something specifically targeting some individuals with autism.
There are certain tasks that they can do to contribute to the workforce, and so I am hopeful as a parent that organizations will continue to find ways to utilize these people. Similar to the overall disability status, you mentioned which was eye popping at 20%, which — the autism rates continue to increase and it is a potential epidemic that we as a society need to figure out a way to help them realize their potential because autism is not a terminal disability, meaning there is high likelihood he will outlive me. He will live a normal life in terms of years. So his ability to provide for himself and care for himself are of super importance. So while that is still a bit up in the air, I am hopeful that organizations will continue to find ways to work with people with autism. There are certain tasks that even sometimes may be repetitive tasks that they can be extremely good at in a very meticulous and very organized way. And Sammy is one of those, as well and I just hope that as we go through his childhood and teenage years that we continue to work towards gaining independence that one day he would be able to enter the workforce.
AGH: That’s amazing. Keith, you’ve taught me so much about this topic, and I am grateful and thank you so much for sharing your story and Sammy’s story with others to help shed a light during Disability Awareness Month.
KG: Thank you, Alice Grey for having me. I appreciate the time and the opportunity to share, and I look forward to next time.
AGH: And thank you all for listening to Life at DHG, our premier podcast series. If you like what you just heard, we hope you’ll tell your friends and colleagues. Be sure to check out our DHG blog for more great stories about our Life Beyond Numbers. Join us next time for another edition of Life at DHG.