Alexandra Nicklas, founder of disability advocate group Different & Able, on finding her voice
Alexandra Nicklas is many things — she’s an entrepreneur, she’s a journalist, and she’s the president and founder of her own company. She’s also someone, like millions of Americans, who might be labeled as “different.” Born with a brain injury, Alexandra has had to overcome a number of obstacles, including speech and language delays, fine motor skill issues and medical complications, but she has never thought of herself as “disabled.” That’s why Alexandra decided to create Different & Able, a platform created to empower people with physical, learning, speech, emotional and medical differences. She spoke with Wake-Up Call about what it was like growing up and feeling different, and how she eventually found the courage to advocate for herself… and try to help others do the same.
Wake-Up Call: Can you tell us what it was like growing up and going to school with a difference?
Alexandra Nicklas: I was born with a brain injury, and was diagnosed when I was 8 months old. That caused a variety of physical, learning, speech, emotional and medical differences, and I had weak fine motor skills on the right side of my arm.
I was speech- and language-delayed, but I did a lot of occupational and physical therapy. When I started going to school, I worked with a neuropsychologist to accommodate my academic difficulties. I went to a mainstream school, which was very difficult, both academically and socially. I grew up in New York City and attended an all-girls school, and people were very competitive. I worked so hard to keep up and get good grades, so I wasn’t doing regular social activities. My whole life was going to school, and then going home and doing homework. I think my classmates decided, “She’s different. Let’s just pick on her.” Kids can be mean, and they don’t always understand disabilities.
When I went off to college, my life changed. I had mild epilepsy, and I had a seizure the day my mom dropped me off orientation. Luckily I’m now on medication and am seizure-free, but it was scary. When I came back from the hospital, I got all of these warm wishes, and sympathetic notes from people, and I wasn’t expecting that. At college I met a wonderful group of friends, who couldn’t have cared less that I had differences. I think as people get older, kids who may have been mean mature a little bit. Even now, I’ve reconnected with people that I went to high school with, and it’s been a totally different experience. They’ve grown up too, and I consider many of them to be friends.
What advice would you give to kids right now who are feeling different?
First I would say that they’re not alone. People that have differences or disabilities may have challenges socially, but they’re not alone. There are support networks, and people that are willing to help you navigate these challenges. I also would say, minimize the pressure to be “popular.” Having one or two good friends is wonderful. A couple of really good friends who share your interests can be the best type of support. I don’t think about myself as having a disability anymore, really, and good friends won’t see that as the first thing about you, either. I would also suggest to anyone struggling with severe social issues to talk to a mental health professional.
With social media now, there are things like dating apps that are specific to those that have disabilities. There are Facebook groups for people with disabilities. On Instagram, you could follow somebody who has a similar disability, and connect with people that way, which didn’t exist when I was growing up. I think that social media helps with awareness.
Another thing I’ll add is that people often feel pity, or sorry for somebody who has a disability. To those people, I would say: don’t even worry about it. I love my life. I don’t think twice about being different, so I don’t think people should waste time feeling sorry for somebody who has a difference. Because they’re probably not thinking about it all the time.
Why did you decide to start Different & Able?
My social experience in college socially was amazing, but I did have difficulties academically. When I graduated college, I wanted to go on and get my master’s in speech language pathology, because I’ve always had an interest in helping others. So I attempted to get my master’s for about two years, but it was too difficult for me academically. I felt like I was putting so much work in, but I wasn’t enjoying it. So I took some time and really thought about myself. I thought, how can I make a difference in this world? And I realized that I wanted to help other people realize that just because they’re different, they can still be able in so many ways. So that’s why I decided to start Different & Able.
Different & Able is an online support platform for people with disabilities, or as we like to call them, differences. We cater to people who have a variety of differences — physical, learning, speech, emotional, medical… and we also cater to parents and caregivers. We spread awareness, offer information and guidance, and give people a platform to connect with others like them. We invite professionals to provide information on certain disorders, and we feature personal stories of people with differences. Success is different for everyone, so we talk with people about both their successes and setbacks. Mostly it’s like a community where people can connect with each other.
You’ve interviewed some pretty high-profile people about their own differences. Can you tell us about some of these interviews?
I interview people about their experience with living with a disability, and we publish them on the site. I recently interviewed Gov. David Patterson, who is legally blind. We spoke about accessibility, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he mentioned that blindness is almost like an invisible disability. Oftentimes, blindness isn’t considered when it comes to accessibility. When you think about something like reading from a Kindle, or using certain types of computer software, those things just aren’t available to people who are blind.
I’ve also interviewed meteorologist Ginger Zee about mental health issues, as well as her husband Ben Aaron, who has OCD. I interviewed Tony-Award winning actress Ali Stroker, who is in a wheelchair. So these are all really incredible people, who have had great success in their fields, but who also have a difference. I think those stories are really inspiring.
There was something that Ginger Zee said to me that I really loved. She’s lived with depression and anxiety and an eating disorder. And she said one thing that has helped her manage these issues is remembering that clouds move. You could be having a bad day today, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow won’t be a great day. There’s always hope that things will change.