Friday, November 29, 2013

Not turning a blind eye

I'm in a bar. Someone asks me if I would like to buy a lottery ticket. My instinctive reaction is no but sometimes, just sometimes, if it's an O.N.C.E. ticket, I say yes. It's not really the chance of winning a bucket load of money, nice as that would be, it's much more the idea of giving to a good cause.

The initials O.N.C.E., pronounced something like onthi in Spanish, stand for Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles or National Organisation of Blind Spaniards. I apologise for using the word blind instead of a term such as people with a visual impairment but I only have 500 words.

O.N.C.E. was founded on 13 December 1938 by the Francoist Government then based in the Northern Spanish town of Burgos. The Nationalists had just won the last big battle of the Civil War, The Battle of the Ebro. In a little under four months Franco's victory would be complete with the fall of Alicante and Cartagena the last Republican cities.

Wars blind a lot of people. There were lots of blind people in Spain in 1938 and there were lots of organisations of and for blind people. The embryonic government was keen to reorganise the sector both to stop duplication of effort and to bring it all under control. O.N.C.E. did the job admirably. In fact it wasn't till the 1980s that the rank and file membership wrested power from the old guard and brought a basic democracy to the organisation. Even today various Government Ministries are represented on the General Council of the organisation and tensions can arise.

They say the Devil makes work for idle hands. Franco needed something to keep all those blind people occupied and O.N.C.E. came up with a wheeze of an idea. It offered  them a job selling lottery tickets. The ticket sales also funded the organisation. The original lotteries were organised province by province, the tickets or cupones were cheap and the prizes small. As the organisation gained vigour in the 1980s the lottery was revitalised, became national and started to offer bigger prizes for higher stakes. Since then development of the various O.N.C.E. lotteries has been more or less non stop

Selling the cupón provides sufficient jobs for any blind Spaniard who wants one. Incidentally it makes blind people much more “visible” on Spanish streets than in most other countries, O.N.C.E. recognised that street selling might not suit everyone, Right from the beginning they organised schools, factories and other facilities run for, and often by, blind people and they still do.

In the 1980s O.N.C.E. established a business arm with the profits being ploughed back into the charity. Although they became involved in laundries, building and banking it was their involvement in the newly liberalised media that caused the biggest stir. Despite the jokes about blind people and television O.N.C.E. was very involved in setting up Telecinco. They made a little joke of their own when they established the talk radio station Onda Cero. Just look at the name and its spelling.

O.N.C.E. now employs well over 130,000 people. Through a separate charitable foundation it works alongside other disability charities, has business interests and is involved in things as diverse as training guide dogs through to providing everyday objects adapted to the needs of blind people.

One of those euphemisms for people with a disability is differently abled. In Spain, thanks to O.N.C.E., that's probably much closer to what people really think. Different maybe but citizens nonetheless.

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