The school is one of two special residential facilities in Ontario for blind and deafblind students. It draws students from across the province and northeastern United States, and has residences to accommodate those that do not live in the local area. Students are recommended for the school by their school board when their needs cannot be met locally. In addition to their own students, the school provides services to other school board programs for students who are blind or deafblind.
Attendance at the school remains at slightly more than 200 students.
The school was originally named the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Blind when it opened in 1872, and later called the Ontario School for the Blind. It was given its current name in 1974 in honour of Brantford citizen William Ross Macdonald, who served as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1968 to 1974.
Though students typically receive instruction in core curriculum subjects, the expanded core curriculum developed at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired has not been officially implemented at the W. Ross Macdonald School. Although students may receive instruction related to some expanded core curriculum areas (e.g., orientation and mobility, life skills or career education) instruction is not guaranteed. Students are currently unable to receive academic credits for work related to the expanded core curriculum.
The school's motto is "The Impossible is only the Untried".
In recent years, a concerted effort has been made to provide landmarks in the physical layout of the newer buildings, to aid students in navigation. A variety of materials and textures are used in the building floors and walls to allow for more efficient orientation. The classroom windows are above eye-level of the students in order to provide indirect light because students with a vision impairment can find direct lighting difficult. Artificial lighting uses special lights with dimmer switch. As well, student lockers are larger than conventional school lockers and include seating.
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