Clients’ Voices: Ali Nicklas Talks about #Failure and #Resilience

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Ali Nicklas, Founder and President, Different & Able    anicklas@differentandable.org    www.instagram.com/differentandable

Ali Nicklas, Founder and President, Different & Able




Good evening. Thank you Dr. Kinsey and Renata Henry for this opportunity. And thank you to the graduating class. It is an honor to be here at Hewitt, speaking with you, at your alumni induction dinner.


I was told that the “word of the year” is “failure.” I know a little about that. I’ve done it several times. At this point, I would say I’ve learned to “fail very well.”

I want to share some words about my experiences at Hewitt, my journey and my failures.


It’s been 10 years since I graduated in the class of 2008, but my memories of my time here, are as vivid as ever. I remember my first day of Kindergarten, coming into my classroom, greeted by Ms. Notham and meeting the kids in my class. As much as I remember the visual scene; I also so remember the visceral feeling. It felt warm and inviting. It felt like a community.

I came to Hewitt as a child with a unique set of gifts, as well as a unique set of challenges. I had physical differences and learning difficulties unlike many of my classmates.

I worried if I would fit in. I wondered if I would measure-up to my parents’ and teachers’ expectations. I questioned what my future life could look like. Would I fail? Would I be able to make-it through and succeed? And it was scary at times.


Due to my learning challenges, geometry was really challenging. I thought math was about numbers, and then it became all about shapes and figures. (Until we got to algebra and that’s when math became all about letters a, b, c and x, y z.) I remember my teacher sitting down with me, telling me “don’t give up” - “you got this!”

Sports were also harder for me. I couldn’t run as fast as some of my peers because of my physical differences. I remember how my teachers supported and motivated me to “stick with it” and persevere even though it was hard.

There were many times I was overwhelmed. I wanted a pass. I wanted to quit.

I am where I am today, because I didn’t quit.

I am where I am today because of my teachers.

I am where I am today because of my family.

I am where I am today because of my inner resilience - I would show the world who I am on the inside!

And I am where I am today because of my differences.

Along the way, I learned how much, one-person can make a life-changing impact for another person. My friends, my teachers and my family, made the difference for me. And I am forever grateful, and ever-eager to give back.


So, it’s no surprise, I dreamt of a career of helping others, and paying-it-forward.

In the upper school, I enjoyed electives like “Anatomy and Physiology” and “Intro to Psychology.” I dreamt of becoming a doctor or psychologist.

So, when I went off to college, I registered for the courses in sciences and psychology. But it wasn’t what I expected! I didn’t enjoy the course material and by all measures, I failed the class. Suddenly, I was confronted by the fact that my dream of becoming a doctor or psychologist wasn’t looking likely. I was back to square-one. I wondered, and I feared:

What course of study was right for me?

What career should I pursue?

Was I going to be a failure?

It was then, I remembered geometry, gym class and the many times I struggled and even failed tests. In fact, it got so rough, there was a time in Hewitt middle school when we were considering whether Hewitt was the best place for me. Needless to say - I dug deeper, and found resources and success I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Sometimes, failure is like that: it forces you to dig deeper than you think you can. To tap into a reservoir of otherwise untapped power and ability. So, following my “failed attempt” with the sciences and psychology, I pivoted to linguistics and language disorders. These classes interested me, I enjoyed the material and I was excited by the career of speech language pathology. I declared my major in Speech Language Pathology. I graduated Marymount Manhattan College with my BA in Speech Language Pathology and thought to myself, grad school is the next step in my path to career success.

Well… I was in for a big surprise.

I succeeded in receiving admission to graduate school at Lehman College, AND coursework continued to be of-interest, AND even I performed well on coursework, BUT... the clinical practicum was really challenging for me. As hard as

I tried, I wasn’t finding my way and I wasn’t meeting my professors’ expectations. I tried my hardest the first time, and even after failing my practicum, I tried again, repeating the practicum a second time, and failing again. Double fail.

I realized I wasn’t able to succeed in the training - and the graduate program wasn’t a good fit for me. So I made the difficult decision to accept my failure, and I terminated my studies in Speech Language Pathology. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t a bright time for me. At this point, I had failed in my first pursuit of medicine and psychology. And now I had also failed in my pursuit to speech language pathology. 2 strikes. I didn’t know what to do. What kind of future was in-store for me? I was a flurry of ideas, doubts and challenges during this time.


And then, a few experiences coincided:

1. My friend Valentine was creating a website for her nutrition practice.

2. And I was discussing my situation with a friend who is a speech therapist, and he suggested there might be a way to “give back,” doing meaningful work, making a difference and really achieving everything I wanted to achieve as a speech language pathologist - even if I wasn’t going to be a speech language pathologist.

And from these different experiences, conversations and insights, Different and Able was born in the fall of 2017.

I decided to use social media and a website to provide support and resources for people with “differences.” My passion grew; I invested more and more time collecting resources and personal stories; meeting leading professionals and celebrities; and starting a proper non-profit organization to grow Different and Able. My failures. My “near strike-out” actually laid the foundation for my foundation.

Through the Different & Able Foundation I am:

  • Empowering people who live with physical, learning, speech, emotional and medical differences;

  • Offering hope and inspiration, professional resources and a community of ongoing support;

  • Building a more diverse and tolerant community, with bridges of access for all people, irrespective of the differences in their abilities.

The website will launch soon. For now, you can follow-us on Instagram @differentandable

Now you see, I may have failed courses but I learned many lessons. I learned to reach high. I learned to work hard, and then when it gets tough… work harder. I learned to listen to myself. And I learned to lean-on others and listen to others’ journeys. And I learned that when you reach your limits, that’s where the real growth begins.

At my Hewitt graduation, I remember the speech delivered by Carolynn Erisman, the then Assistant Head of School. She called it: “Life is not a straight line”. Life isn’t a linear equation. It isn’t a straight line from here to who you become. Lean-into-it.

As the saying goes: “You may try and fail. Just make sure, you don’t fail to try!”

And if you do try, I promise you will find your meaning and purpose. And when you do, and whatever you become, come back to Hewitt to share your story so some 12th grade girls, and even younger ones, can learn from your life journey and find what path they choose to try.

The Alchemist’s Secret - Teen tells his story

Meet Andrew Carlins. 

He stutters.  And I am the speech-therapist.  But this guys leaves me speechless - every time. 
His parents (shining examples in their own right) brought him to meet me in the Long Island office.  And the journey continues years later.  And so much more yet to come.
As a high-schooler, he participated in our panel Q&A events; he collaborated in designing and traveling to Israel to conduct epic research; we co-presented the research at the National Stuttering Association Convention in Atlanta, GA - and we "bowl" together at the annual Paul Rudd SAY Bowling Event.  He continues to shine, and finds time to serve as a mentor for our teens who stutter.

He has an amazing way with words, and moves me every time.  Enjoy.


The Alchemist’s Secret

Alchemists look to change iron into gold, trying to perfect the imperfect. We are all alchemists trying to refine ourselves; however, only the few who learn the alchemist’s secret are successful. I achieved my revelation through overcoming my greatest obstacle: my stutter.

We are all alchemists trying to refine ourselves.
— Andrew

Imagine you have a question, but when you try to ask it, the words get trapped in your throat. Your ability to express yourself is attached to an iron chain around your neck. Others laugh as you struggle to break the chains that keep your voice trapped within, itching for freedom.

Welcome to the world of a stuttering child. Scratch that.

Welcome to the world of a stuttering child who allows that stutter to overpower his voice.

As a fifth grader, I was a full time stutterer and a part time entrepreneur with a business selling sports memorabilia to my friends. To build my inventory, I consciously decided to write letters to several teams, fearing I would stutter if I attempted to call. I thought the letters were convincing, but, based on the lack of responses, the teams did not.

Welcome to the world of a stuttering child who allows that stutter to overpower his voice.
— Andrew

I walked into speech therapy that week frustrated and disappointed. I wanted so much to be free of my stutter, which seemed to keep my business, and me, from growing.  My speech pathologist suggested I call the sports teams to personalize my request. He insisted I start each call by bluntly saying that I am a stutterer, predicting positive results.  Surprisingly, the more forthcoming I was, the better the outcome. It rained memorabilia during the following weeks.

I distinctly remember my first call to the Long Island Ducks. I hoped no one would answer, counting each dial tone and anticipating the relief of the voicemail recording. My desires went unfulfilled as I heard a respondent on the line.

“Hello. M-my n-name is Andrew,” I said stuttering as my chains tightened. I continued, “I-I-I am a st-u-uttt-erer a-and I am int-e-e-e-eeres-s-s-s-s-sted   i-i-in y-your mem-mem-memorabilia.”

As the pitch progressed, the chains of my stutter stopped burdening me. I was so focused on achieving my goal that others’ perceptions ceased to bother me.  For the first time, I spoke freely. I controlled my voice. The iron chain around my neck turned golden, as I realized my disfluent speech could not silence my voice. Only I could.

Surprisingly, the more forthcoming I was, the better the outcome.
It rained memorabilia during the following weeks.
— Andrew

Although I still occasionally stutter, I speak confidently wearing my now golden chains, proudly. My gift of stuttering inspires me to use my voice to empower others to find theirs. I act on my inspiration by giving back to the stuttering community. As a member and mentor of the not-for-profit organization Stuttering Association for the Young and a researcher leading an international stuttering research project, I raise awareness that stutterers are not alone and that there are multiple treatments that lead to success. Throughout my journey, I have had the privilege of ringing the NASDAQ bell announcing National Stuttering Awareness Week and presenting my research findings at an International Stuttering Conference. Reflecting on my experiences, I realize millions stutter, including Joe Biden, but only the extraordinary are "stuttering alchemists" who embrace their perfect imperfection and stutter well. I now know the alchemist’s secret, and I hope to empower others to learn it too.

For the first time, I spoke freely. I controlled my voice.
The iron chain around my neck turned golden,
as I realized my disfluent speech could not silence my voice.
— Andrew

My stutter no longer defines me, but my journey with it still shapes my worldview. I have come to understand that accepting oneself entirely leads to courage and self-confidence, which are gateways to success.

Since this essay is my first impression, I would like to introduce myself in a fashion I found successful years ago, that also takes into account my experiences and current self-perception: “Hello my name is Andrew. I am a stutterer….I am also a scholar, a musician, a poet, an entrepreneur, a researcher,  an athlete, an actor, an advocate, a mentor, a leader, a listener, a brother, a dog-lover, an individual... and an alchemist.”

Andrew, Tammy (mom) and Uri at Paul Rudd Bowling Event for Stuttering Assoc. for the Young (2013)

Andrew, Tammy (mom) and Uri at Paul Rudd Bowling Event for Stuttering Assoc. for the Young (2013)

My stutter no longer defines me,
but my journey with it still shapes my worldview.
— Andrew
Andrew attends Duke and studied abroad in Ireland (2018)

Andrew attends Duke and studied abroad in Ireland (2018)

Andrew Carlins is a student at Duke University, studying Financial Economics, Environmental Science and Policy and Ethics.  He is concerned with refugee rights, environmental economics and getting to know people.  At Duke, he mentors refugee students in Durham, NC, and engages city officials on behalf of refugees.  Andrew shows them that a stutter doesn’t have to hold someone back, and can actually make someone a better, stronger listener.
Andrew is proud of his stutter and grateful for the opportunity to share his experiences with others.  Feel free to email anytime (carlins101@gmail.com) with questions or thoughts.  Andrew would love to hear from you.

*This was also submitted as his college essay.

A Stuttering Transformation - Teen Tells Her Own Story

My old self:

I am a very quiet girl.  Usually I prefer to sit on the side and not draw too much attention.  Speaking is my fear.  I will do anything to avoid it; whether it's running out of the room or just acting as if I don't know the answer to the question.  Most of my friends know me as the girl who doesn't speak in class.  Only my close friends have really heard me talk. 

I don't like that people see me this way, but I guess it's better than the alternative - stuttering

Ever since I began to speak I've had a stutter. My earliest memory of stuttering is in the 3rd grade, that's when I asked my parents to go to a speech therapist for the first time. I always thought of my stutter as something to be embarrassed of, to be ashamed of.  I thought of it as a disability.  Instead of facing my stutter and making the best of it, I tried to hide it and run away from it.



My new self:

I may not be the loudest or most talkative girl in the world, but I'm no longer afraid to speak.

It's not that the stutter disappeared, I just think of it in a completely different way.  I learned to see my stutter as a part of me, and to embrace it.  God only challenges us with challenges we are able to face, and if God gave me a stutter then I must be able to face it.

I realized that my stutter makes me unique, it makes me a more patient person and it teaches me the value of words. Over the past few years I've gone through major changes in my life and now I'm happy to say that: I have spoken in front of my class; I took an oral exam and scored very well on it; I make phone calls whenever I want to; and I even got a job which requires speaking to customers and co-workers all the time.


My journey to my new self:

As I mentioned, over the past few years I've gone through big changes that completely turned my life around in such a positive way.  This process started when I first met Uri from Schneider Speech in 9th grade.  I came to Uri as my old self and left just I started to reach my new self.

On my way towards my new self, I endured several setbacks alongside many victories.
I needed to be patient with myself;
and I also needed my speech therapist to be patient with me as well. 
— Devora

Pushing me too far, too soon, was a terrible mistake. 
Whether it was my speech therapist, my friends, my family or my teachers. Over the years I've had teachers who tried to force me to speak in class and on the other hand teachers who respected my request not to be called on.  I definitely had a much better relationship with the teachers who respected my silence than with the teachers who did not.  The teachers who gave me my space were in fact the ones who ended up hearing me speak more in class voluntarily.

Surprisingly, the teachers who gave me my space, were the ones who ended up hearing me speak more in class.

Another thing that was not helpful during those years was my own constant desire to cure my stutter.  Because I was so focused on getting rid of the stutter, I didn't give myself the opportunity to learn to accept it and live happily with it.  In the back of my mind I knew that I was probably going to have a stutter for the rest of my life but I wasn't willing to give up. The more I tried to get rid of the stutter the more upsetting it was every time I wasn't able to speak fluently.  

I felt like a failure. But once I accepted myself with the stutter and decided I won't let it get in my way, the stutter actually got significantly better and bothered me a lot less.

As a teenager going to speech therapy, patience was the key to my transformation. I needed to be patient with myself, and I needed my speech therapist to be patient with me as well.  Every big change I went through was made up of a lot of small changes that could not all happen at once.

When I first met Uri I remember telling him "I will never call to order pizza" and "I will never speak in front of my class."  Uri assured me, over and over again, that one day, I could do all those things.  Even though I didn't believe him, something inside me wanted to prove him right and prove me wrong.

My therapist's belief in me was more than I had in myself.  I think that belief was a big part of my change.

My last meeting with Uri was at the end of 10th grade. I didn't think it would be my last meeting, I was sure I would be back again when things got hard. But once I stopped going to speech therapy I started to really think about everything that happened during our meetings.

The more time passed the more I saw myself change. I became less afraid of stuttering and slowly started to do the things I told Uri I would never do. The more time passed the more I saw myself change. I became less afraid of stuttering and slowly started to do the things I told Uri I would never do.

I was a much stronger person and when things got a little hard I didn't even feel the need to go back to speech therapy, because I was able to handle it myself.

It turns out I proved myself wrong.  He was right.  I could and would do so many of the things I said "I never could..."  And I'm so happy I did.


Devora Levi is 18 years old.  She lives in Israel and will be starting her national service this coming year.