Defense Date


Graduation Date

Spring 1-1-2017


Worldwide Access

Submission Type


Degree Name



Professional Doctorate in Educational Leadership (ProDEL)


School of Education

Committee Chair

Rick McCown

Committee Member

Connie Moss

Committee Member

Elizabeth Miller


Ableism, Disability, Disability oppression, Identity, Social cognitive theory, Youth adult-partnership model


Youth with disability are oppressed and marginalized by a dominant cultural narrative called ableism (Adams, Reiss, and Serlin, 2015; Campbell, 2015 as cited in Adams et al., 2015). Challenging ableism is a matter of social justice. Without serious attitudinal shifts and the removal of systemic barriers, our youth with disabilities will continue to experience negative outcomes and underdeveloped agency. This study was conducted to provide a more detailed look into how adults with disabilities, who participated in disability advocacy programs as youth, perceive their past involvement with such programs in relation to defining their disability, identity, and capacity for agency. In addition, the study sought to assess the relevance of disability-positive environments based on participants’ perceptions. The study’s primary research question was: How and to what extent do youth with disabilities perceive disability advocacy programs in Pittsburgh as disability-positive environments? The supplemental research question was: How do young professionals with disabilities perceive and describe living with a disability, developing an identity, and maturing as an agent in the context of past participation in a disability advocacy program?

Ten participants were included in the study. Participants were young professionals with disabilities recruited through the researcher’s advocacy network. This study collected qualitative data through semi-structured, in-person interviews. Data were organized and analyzed using Template Analysis; contextualized through the parameters of social cognitive theory, the youth-adult partnership model, and principles of disability-positive environments. The following major themes emerged from the interview data: (1) their seminal experiences with disability as children and as young adults; (2) how they cultivated, defined, and internalized their disability-identity; and (3) how their sense of purpose and achievements provided context for future plans.

The concept of disability-positivity, social cognitive theory, and the history of youth-adult partnerships were used as frames to organize the findings into a model called, the Path of Advancement for Development of Positive Disability-Identities model. This model captures the four stages the interviewees experienced during their transition from adolescence to young adulthood. The stages cover avoidance of disability, self-defining epiphanic experiences, established individualized goals and roles, and the accumulation of these experiences, perceptions, accomplishments, and action plans are represented by stage four, the actualization of positive disability-identities.

This study found that the development of agency was not situated in any particular advocacy program. Rather, the interviewees’ perceptions of agency and their experiences as individuals with disabilities living in an ableist society were woven into an organized narrative that shaped an understanding of disability, identity, and forged a driving sense of purpose that translated into achieving meaningful goals. The dissertation ends with my agenda as an educational leader: to create a cross-disability advocacy collective that will empower, partner, and amplify strong, new disability narratives with the objective of replacing ableism with agency.