Thinking Historically About Disability at the Ontario School for the Blind, 1903-1917

This is the third entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

Harrison Dressler

“ALL THE EVIDENCE DEMANDED,” read an article published in the Toronto Globe on February 2, 1917. Written by two former students—R.F. Henderson and Byron G. Derbyshire—the article alerted the Canadian public about an investigation into the Ontario School for the Blind (OSB), then as now, a residential school for blind people located in Brantford, Ontario. Roughly one year prior, Derbyshire had organized a counter-offensive against the OSB, collecting signatures from forty-two students before sending three letters to the Department of Education, documenting allegations of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Commissioner Norman B. Gash entered the OSB in May 1916, where he soon accumulated over one-thousand pages of first-person testimony: evidence that no longer exists, either lost, forgotten, or destroyed. On February 12, 1917, Commissioner Gash delivered the resulting report to the Department of Education. But the protesters’ allegations of sexual abuse were conspicuously absent, and their complaints of malnutrition were seriously downplayed.

According to the late Peter Seixas, primary sources are aggregates of pre-existing power dynamics, documents divorced from their original habitats like “wild animal[s] in a zoo.” Understanding primary source evidence requires that historians identify these power dynamics while asking innovative questions necessarily influenced by present-day concerns.

For some historians, segregated educational institutions for Deaf and blind people were progressive, humanitarian initiatives designed to advance the collective interests of people with sensory impairments.  However, given recent bombshell court cases, these perspectives are becoming increasingly untenable. Known as Ontario’s “Institutional Cases,” these lawsuits revealed gut-churning information about the abuses suffered by disabled people who attended residential institutions during the late 20th century.

Present-day concerns therefore require historians to reexamine commonplace assumptions about the relationship between disability and education. To date, historians have generally used administrative records to craft their narratives about residential education. These sources, however, often promote one-sided perspectives that exclude student experiences.

When questioned by an Inspector in 1881, senior officials described the OSB’s annual reports as “bright[ly] coloured,” “exaggerate[d],” and “misleading.” These documents, Principal H.F. Gardiner later admitted, were designed to influence “legislation, the press, the public, [and] the parents of blind children.”

Using non-administrative records—for example, two investigations into the OSB completed during the early 20thcentury—paints an alternative portrait of the history of institutionalization.

The Development of the Ontario Institution for the Blind

During the mid-to-late 19th century, industrialization began transforming cities like Toronto, Hamilton, and Brantford into major manufacturing hubs, as recurring economic crises pushed artisans and craftspeople into the sphere of waged labour. As agrarian and household economies gradually collapsed, albeit unevenly, competition among workers intensified, prompting increases in labour discipline. These material transformations ultimately fomented precarity and poverty among disabled people, as workers with impairments like blindness likely struggled to compete against their able-bodied peers.

In 1868, frustrated by the purportedly “hopeless” condition of the Deaf and blind, Canadian educationalist Reverend Edgerton Ryerson encouraged the government of Ontario to erect a system of residential schools designed to transform “helpless” and “burden[some]” charges into “independent,” productive citizens. By rehabilitating the Deaf and blind, conceptualized by Ryerson as distinct “classes of unfortunates,” these schools—which existed independently from the federal Indian residential school system—would fulfil the lofty ideals of Canada’s developing polity.

The Ontario Institution for the Blind—placed under the authority of John Woodburn Langmuir, the Inspector of Prisons, Asylums, and Public Charities—was promptly established in 1872. Between 1864 and 1877, correctional facilities proliferated across Ontario, roughly doubling from 49 to 100. By 1881, Langmuir could boast that Ontario had erected “one of the most complete charitable and correctional systems on the continent,” a network of gaols, asylums, industrial schools, reformatories, and hospitals. In other words, the Ontario Institution for the Blind developed concurrently with Ontario’s prisons—both systems were essentially carceral.

Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner was appointed Principal of the OSB in 1903. From the outset, Gardiner’s ideological underpinnings were explicitly assimilationist, both in theory and in practice. “Let the blind neither envy the sighted nor despise him,” he remarked in 1912, “[but] be as like them as possible.” For Gardiner, the social exclusion of blind people stemmed from their physiological impairments, which produced a coterie of malignant behavioural defects. Educators, Gardiner reasoned, would primarily serve as behavioural architects. By “detect[ing] and correct[ing] faults of manner,” teachers could convert “freak[s]” into “m[en],” primarily by eliminating their “distinctive habits.”

Students’ Experiences

As student testimony demonstrates, the OSB’s carceral environment directly impacted the experiences of students. Teachers, for example, enjoyed punching and slapping children, beating them “[until] their hearing [was] partially destroyed.” One boy was repeatedly kicked in the head until he lost consciousness. The child possibly suffered long-term neurological damage, since he proved incapable of speaking for several weeks. Children were kicked down flights of stairs, thrown onto benches, and confined to a jailcell known as “the cooler.” And perhaps most importantly, students exposed shocking revelations concerning sexual abuse. One teacher, the children explained, “pull[ed] a small boy out of bed in a state of partial nudity … and meddle[d] with his sexual organs.”

Students were also malnourished. Forty-two boys, who complained to the Department of Education in 1916, described their meals as “repulsive to the appetite.” Teachers prevented seven-year-old girls—who cried and begged for more food—from eating a “crumb of bread” before dinner. Children who attended the OSB during the 1920s later recalled eating hardened, congealed porridge for breakfast, reluctantly snacking as students scrambled through “stampede[s] for the bread.” What’s more, administrators blatantly lied while reporting information about students’ diets. “We do not get the food that it is represented that we get,” the young boys dejectedly explained in 1916.

According to student testimony, these material and ideological factors exacerbated students’ impairments. The children, Investigator A.J. Russell Snow wrote in 1907, looked “pale-faced and emaciated.” One girl had even became temporarily paralyzed because of anemia. Moreover, many of the OSB’s residents exhibited symptoms of edema, a disease caused by protein deficiencies. Students, for example, sometimes complained that their fingers and ankles were swollen and sore. Supported by the certainty of science and the precision of medicine, the OSB’s administrators leveraged the logic of biological determinism to rationalize their behaviour. “The class of people who become blind are usually [and naturally] debilitated,” reported Dr. Marquis, the institution’s physician.

Educational opportunities at the OSB were similarly sparse. According to promotional materials, the OSB taught a variety of vocational, musical, and academic subjects. Educators, however, rarely fulfilled their duties. According to student-turned-activist Byron G. Derbyshire, teachers “absent[ed] themselves as frequently as they cho[se],” leaving students to fend for themselves. “We strongly protest … this system of teaching,” Derbyshire told the Department of Education, an arrangement which had hitherto “prove[d] the greatest handicap to our success.”

What Comes Next?

Contrary to popular conceptions, segregated educational institutions rarely served as purveyors of humanitarian reform. Instead, according to student testimony, the OSB constituted an educational milieu that stunted students’ physical, emotional, and intellectual development.

Historical thinking encourages scholars to critically examine the primary sources they employ to understand the past. Today, administrative records constitute a barrier for historical practice, as Canadian scholars have failed to interrogate the student experience. Moving forward, historians should privilege student testimony over administrative records—sources that perpetuate one-sided perspectives about the history of institutionalization.

Harrison Dressler is a master’s student at Queen’s University. A Queen’s Public Scholarship Fellow, Dressler’s SSHRC-funded research examines the intersections between capitalism, disability, and institutionalization. A settler, he lives on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabek. For more information, please contact An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2023 AAA/CASCA Annual Meeting in Toronto, Ontario.

Suggested Reading

Chapman, Chris, Allison C. Carey, and Liat Ben-Moshe. “Reconsidering Confinement: Interlocking Locations and Logics of Incarceration.” Essay. In Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada, edited by Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey, 3–23. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Palmer, Bryan D. “Social Formation and Class Formation in Nineteenth-Century North America.” Essay. In Proletarianization and Family History, edited by David Levine, 229–308. New York, NY: Academic Press, 1984.

Palmer, Bryan D., and Gaeten Heroux. “‘Cracking the Stone’: The Long History of Capitalist Crisis and Toronto’s Dispossessed, 1830–1930.” Labour / Le Travail 69 (2012): 9–69.

Pearce, Joanna L. “‘To Give Light Where He Made All Dark’: Educating the Blind About the Natural World and God in Nineteenth-Century North America.” History of Education Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2020): 295–323.

Rose, Sarah F. No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s–1930s. The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Splane, Richard B. Social Welfare in Ontario, 1791-1893: A Study of Public Welfare Administration. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1965.

Primary Sources

Archives of Ontario

RG 18-45. Records of the Commission to Investigate the Workings of the Blind Institute at Brantford and the Deaf and Dumb Institute at Belleville. 1907. Container 1. Vol. 1-2.

RG 63-18. Investigation into the Brantford Institution for the Blind. 1875-1881. Box 766. Files 4-6.

Library and Archives Canada

Canadian National Institute for the Blind fonds. Subject files.

MG28-I233, Volume number: 16. Ontario School for the Blind – General. 1916-1919.

“Gustavus Barton et al. to Norman B. Gash,” March 11, 1916.

“Gustavus Barton et al. to Norman B. Gash,” May 3, 1916.

“Gustavus Barton et al. to Norman B. Gash,” n.d.

“Byron Derbyshire to S.W. Swift,” June 17, 1916.

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