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Spanish Blind Group Thrives on Largess of Lottery

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Associated Press, May 29, 2000.

MADRID, Spain (AP) - The Spanish Civil War killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians and left much of Spain in ruins. Yet, for one disabled group, the war's legacy has had advantages.

No one knows how many people were blinded in the 1936-39 conflict, but eager to rid himself of the problem, dictator Francisco Franco ordered them to form a national organization and take care of themselves. To encourage them, he granted the right to create a national lottery. Six decades later, with Franco long dead and democracy fully restored, the National Organization of Blind Spaniards has blossomed into one of Spain's most successful businesses and one of the world's most dynamic disabled support groups.

"There's no doubt about it, if you're going to be blind, be Spanish," quips Miguel Callejas, a blind man who has sold lottery tickets the past 28 years for ONCE, the Spanish acronym for the organization. Lottery drawings, staged every day except Saturday, bring in the equivalent of dlrs 2.3 billion a year. Profits enable the organization to guarantee employment for nearly all of Spain's 60,000 blind.

"I know of nothing even comparable to the ONCE in the entire world," said Edwin Vaughan, a blind sociology professor at the University of Missouri who has studied how countries view and treat blind people. "In nearly every country, the United States included, blindness is associated with begging and the blind are virtually totally dependent on welfare assistance with employment opportunities severely limited," he said. "In Spain, it's the opposite."

In the United States, unemployment among the blind rarely falls below 70 percent, while in Spain, it's hardly ever above 5 percent, Vaughan said. The European Blind Union says its latest figures, for 1995, showed that out of 41,000 blind adults available for work in Germany, only 9,000 had a job. In France, only 7,000 of the 18,000 working age blind were employed. ONCE receives no government subsidy and its board is independent and elected every four years by its members, all blind or sight-impaired. The growth of the lottery allowed ONCE to gradually build up a business empire with stakes in everything from hotels to construction. In the 1980s, it branched into the media, founding a private national TV channel, a national daily newspaper and a popular radio chain. But sensing expansion was tarnishing its more-important image as a caring group for the disabled, ONCE sold off its principal media holdings -- at a profit. Nowadays, ONCE is as Spanish as bullfighting, sidewalk cafes and soccer. Vendors wearing dark glasses and carrying canes pace the streets in nearly every village, barking out, "Lucky numbers for today!" In the cities, single vendors sit in enclosed ONCE kiosks, selling tickets through glass windows.

The lottery has thrived not only because Spaniards love to gamble, but because of clever marketing and slick advertising. Midweek coupons sell for 200 pesetas (dlrs 1.25), offering a chance at 500 daily top prizes of 5 million pesetas (dlrs 33,000) each and thousands of smaller winnings. The No. 1 prize for the Sunday lottery pays dlrs 58,000 a year for 25 years.

Totally independent since 1982, ONCE plows its profits into serving its members. It runs Europe's biggest guide dog school, a factory whose products include canes, children's Braille sets and portable speech-activated computers and social rehabilitation centers. It also works with other companies, such as Microsoft, to develop systems and technical innovations for the blind. On a more public level, ONCE runs a touch-and-feel art Museum for the Blind. In 1998, it organized an international competition in Madrid for blind athletes. In recent years, ONCE has supported projects for the blind abroad, including in several Latin American nations, notably Chile and Argentina.

ONCE estimates there are 150 million blind people in the world, but many poor countries do not keep records on who and where they are. "The ONCE's idea is that the blind should care for the blind. In most countries, nobody looks after them at all," said Rafael Mondaca, the organization's director of international relations. ONCE recognizes that even though it is private, it has a privileged position and the government could withdraw its lottery rights or grant licenses to other causes. "Fortunately, it wouldn't make business sense for the Spanish government to do so because it knows that if ONCE crumbled it would then be responsible for looking after the blind itself," said Pedro Zurrita, who heads the World Blind Organization, which is based in Madrid.

"For the Civil War authorities, it was a load off their mind," he said. "Back then no one thought the lottery was ever going to be so successful. It's unlikely that any government would do it today."

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