As a tiny kindergartner, Lindsey Massengale announced to her teacher that although she was a student with a disability, she expected to be treated just like her classmates.

As a fourth grader, she came up with a plan to meet the uniform code in winter – which required hard-to-pull-up leggings – by telling administrators she had elastic pants that were easier for her to manage. They agreed.

“My parents wanted me to be an independent individual in society,” said Massengale. “I was allowed to try things and choose what’s best for me, which helped me to self-advocate and speak for myself.”

Those two life moments highlight Massengale’s tenacity. Born with cerebral palsy, she has turned her disability into her strength, using that self-advocacy drive to earn her doctoral degree in exceptional education Saturday at the University of Central Florida..

“I will be crying tears of joy when I receive my Ph.D.,” she said. “My accomplishment lets the world know that individuals with disabilities can do anything they put their mind to, along with determination and support from their family, professors and cohort.”

Massengale, 29, will walk across the stage with other College of Education and Human Performance graduates at the CFE Arena; she previously received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Southeastern University and her master’s in exceptional student education from UCF.

She said she worked diligently to earn her degrees and is thankful for learning at an early age the importance of self-advocacy.

Massengale’s journey began while growing up as an Air Force kid in Germany and Russia. Her parents raised her as an independent child and never used disability language at home.

At 4, Massengale learned about her disability for the first time after going through Russian airport security in a stroller and being told she was handicapped.

She had never heard the word “handicapped” before.

Massengale had to be screened and patted down in a separate room before she could board the plane. The frightening experience helped her learn at a young age what it meant to have a disability.

Learning lessons like that has taught her to be strong, independent and to speak up for herself.

Life experiences, teaching first graders and meeting UCF exceptional education professor Lisa Dieker at the Florida Association of Teacher Educators conference put her on the path toward earning a Ph.D.and giving back to students with disabilities.

She also can relate to her dissertation, which focused on elementary students with disabilities self-advocating through speaking and writing. It was also important for her to conduct research about how these two skills go hand in hand and impact the lives of students with disabilities.

“My research found that self-advocacy gives students with disabilities an avenue for being independent,” she said. “It’s a tool that builds confidence and lets them have a voice and speak up specifically for what they need in their own words.”

In the meantime, Massengale plans to speak at self-advocacy seminars, become an exceptional education assistant professor and continue conducting research.

She advises other college students with disabilities to self-advocate if they’re struggling and discuss strategies that can help them succeed because they’re the only ones that can assess their accommodations.

“College students with disabilities shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions,” she said. “They can explore options that will help them because when it’s their voice, then they’re confident and can self-advocate for themselves.”