In Spain, Blind Lead the Blind--for the Better


The Spanish Civil War killed and maimed hundreds of thousands and left much of Spain in ruins. But for one disabled group, the war’s legacy has been the touch of Midas.

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 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 for the last 28 years for ONCE, the organization’s Spanish acronym.


Lottery drawings, staged every day except Saturday, bring in the equivalent of $2.3 billion a year. Profits enable the organization to guarantee employment for nearly all of Spain’s 60,000 blind, dwarfing job figures for the blind in other developed countries.

“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%, while in Spain it’s hardly ever above 5%, 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 build 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 ($1.25), offering a chance at 500 daily top prizes of 5 million pesetas ($33,000) each and thousands of smaller winnings. The No. 1 prize for the Sunday lottery pays $58,000 a year for 25 years.

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 them.

“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 Madrid-based World Blind Organization.

“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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