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  • A Class by Themselves? The Origins of Special Education in Toronto and Beyond by Jason Ellis
  • Amy von Heyking
A Class by Themselves? The Origins of Special Education in Toronto and Beyond. Jason Ellis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019. Pp. xv + 364, $80.00 cloth, $32.95 paper

This is a well-researched and nuanced account of the first decades of special education classes in Toronto public schools. Jason Ellis details how and why policies and practices in school programs changed as new theories about the causes and consequences of children’s disabilities emerged. It is grounded in relevant scholarship and makes a significant contribution to the history of Canadian schooling and childhood and disability studies.

Established during the 1910s as “auxiliary classes,” Ellis describes how child savers, eugenicists, social reformers, and educators advocated specialized school programs for children who were then described as “feeble-minded.” These were quickly followed by forest and open-air schools for students struggling with ill health, and “foreign classes” in schools with large populations of recent [End Page 150] immigrants. Significantly, when these specialized classes were established, educators “believed that such instruction could help children . . . to return to the mainstream classroom. They did not assume that all exceptional children were educationally unreachable” (39).

With the rise of iq testing in the 1920s, Ellis demonstrates not only that auxiliary classes expanded as a result but also that it provided a rationale for dropping remedial education because specialists insisted that “low iq was virtually the only cause of children’s learning problems and that it was innate and intractable” (52). This meant that children who were tested and labelled as “subnormal” were subject to a curriculum that stressed pre-vocational manual training. An increase in the school-leaving age and a growing industrial economy meant that students were then streamed into gender-segregated junior vocational schools for adolescents. After 1930, educators and specialists accepted that children could have normal intelligence but a disability that impeded their progress in reading or arithmetic. This acknowledgement of “special-subject disability” meant that educators “in the 1930s and early 1940s developed elaborate tests, special materials, and remedial teaching techniques for diagnosing and treating” these disabilities (153). In this era, “opportunity” classes offered learning support and the chance for students to be reintegrated into mainstream classrooms.

In the 1940s, educational psychologists expanded their role into “mental hygiene”: treating children’s emotional and behavioural problems as part of their work in “personality adjustment” and “child guidance.” Ellis argues that the rise of mental hygiene effectively signalled the end of the influence of eugenics on special education since it was grounded in the belief that “changing a person’s surroundings could change their mental condition” (184). While this meant that educational psychologists and educators tried to identify students from home environments that might put them at “at risk” of maladjustment or learning problems, it also resulted in an approach to special education that stressed that appropriate testing, diagnosis, and the correct educational setting could address those students’ learning needs.

Ellis also addresses the school programs that the Toronto public school board established for children with physical disabilities. Sight-saving, speech and hearing, and orthopaedic classes generally tried to offer programs that would help children overcome their disabilities and be able to live a “normal,” productive life. Ellis details students’ mixed reactions to this approach, a range of “acceptance, avoidance, and ambivalence” (142). Since current policies promote inclusion of all students in “regular” classrooms, it is significant that Ellis explains why some students preferred the sense of belonging they felt in their segregated settings.

Throughout, Ellis provides detailed information about how students were selected for specialized programs, who attended, and what they were taught. He articulates several significant findings. First, he demonstrates that, while recent immigrant families were targeted in the early programs that combined school-work with public health initiatives (like the open-air program), working-class children were not disproportionately streamed into the auxiliary or vocational programs in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, Ellis attends to the perspectives of [End Page 151] parents and the students themselves. Indeed, one of the strengths of his account is that he strives...


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pp. 150-152
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