Date of Award

May 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Corinne R. Smith


Disability, Self-Advocacy, Self-Determination, Stigma

Subject Categories



The purpose of this study was to learn about the participants' academic and social experiences in high school and college as students with a learning disability. In particular, this study focused on the self-determination of college students with learning disabilities, how they understand the concept of self-advocacy, and how they utilize self-advocacy skills in educational settings. Eleven college students with learning disabilities participated in one-on-one in-depth interviews at a university in the Northeastern United States. The data was informed by Carol Dweck's theoretical work on motivation and intelligence and Erving Goffman's stigma theory. The results of this study provide insight into how students with learning disabilities navigate college, particularly around their views of motivation and self-determination, which related to their belief in an "incremental" view of intelligence that focuses on effort, not native ability, leading to success. Contrary to subscribing to the latter "entity" of view of intelligence, the students maintained that with effort, hard work, and perseverance, they can be successful academically and act as strong self-advocates. Most of the participants identified their parents or other close family members as vital to their understanding of and ability to self-advocate, which casts a strong light on the influence of familial support in students' development of self-advocacy skills. Students reflected that stigmatization was often attached to the special education high school environment, but it could also occur at the college setting, particularly when students utilized disability accommodations during exams. With its focus on self-determination, self-advocacy, and stigma, this study provides rich and interesting insight into the educational lives of eleven students with learning disabilities and the struggles and successes they faced as learners pursuing a common goal of completing their postsecondary education.


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