The Making of Blindness in Ontario: Incarceration and Class Formation, 1872–1926

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Dressler, Harrison
Blindness , Capitalism , Disability , Ontario , Incarceration , Marxism , Michel Foucault
This thesis examines the experiences of pupils-cum-inmates who attended the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Blind (OIB) during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Customary assessments of segregated education, which investigate administrators’ campaigns to implement pedagogical or curricular advancements, have characterized institutionalization as educational and emancipatory. Instead, this project challenges identity-centric, rights-based narratives by reframing the OIB as constitutive of Ontario’s carceral apparatus. Drawing upon first-person testimony gathered during four investigations into the OIB conducted by the Government of Ontario, the analysis demonstrates that capitalist development dispossessed blind Canadians from waged labour, generating an underclass of precarious and oft-wageless proletarians. Institutionalization socialized the workers-in-training within a prison-like environment where punishments like whippings and beatings, solitary confinement, and material deprivation were commonplace. Educational opportunities were haphazard and irregular, while living and working conditions were uncomfortable, bordering on intolerable. Biomedical understandings of blindness rationalized the mistreatment of inmates, as administrators attempted to reintegrate graduates into waged labour. Children and adolescents survived by developing cultures of delinquency and transgression; inmates, especially working-class inmates, organized popular resistance movements that challenged institutional authority. Educational authorities responded by overseeing the repression of working-class culture. By funneling graduates into either working-class occupations or “gentlemanly” and “learned” professions, institutionalization fomented processes of class formation, creating, first, an underclass of labourers and musicians and, second, a vanguard of capitalists and professionals.
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