Spain blind association puts disabled to work
National Organisation for Spanish Blind People ticket seller Ricardo Velesar works from a booth on a square in the center of Madrid on January 14, 2014 - by Gerard Julien
His prospects changed dramatically, however, when he knocked on the door of Spain's national association for the blind.
The organisation -- known as ONCE by its Spanish acronym -- put Velesar to work in 1990 selling tickets for its daily lottery and provided him with a seeing eye dog once he became completely blind.
He has earned enough at the job to buy an apartment and support his wife, whom he met through ONCE and who is also blind, and their six-year-old daughter.
"I am very grateful because thanks to the sale of the tickets I have been able to raise a family, I have a stable job that is very dignified," Velesar said as he bantered with a steady stream of clients at his heated sales booth located by a metro exit in Madrid's bustling Manuel Becerra square.
"I have been able to have a very normal life. I don't know what my life would be like without ONCE," added Velesar, who has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative eye disease.
He is one of 20,000 lottery ticket sellers employed by ONCE across the country, all of them visually impaired or with some other disability.
ONCE was founded 75 years ago with the goal of helping blind people work for a living and not become dependent on public support.
It has since expanded its mandate to help people with any type of disability.
Last year, ONCE won the Prince of Asturias Concord prize, regarded as Spain's Nobel prize, the jury citing its "extraordinary" work, which "enhanced the dignity and quality of life of millions of disabled people in Spain".
Other international initiatives have followed ONCE's example, the prize jury added.
ONCE finances itself through the sale of tickets for its own lottery which has annual sales of about 1.9 billion euros ($2.6 billion).
Half the money goes to prizes and the rest is spent on providing services ranging from employment to rehabilitation and specialised education.
Aside from employing ticket sellers, ONCE owns fully or in part 29 firms that hire disabled people and it lobbies businesses to take on workers.
Among its companies is a news agency, an industrial laundry, a hotel chain and temp agency that supplies cleaners and security guards to offices.
ONCE created 7,100 jobs for disabled people last year even as Spain's jobless rate hit 26 percent as the country struggled with the fallout from the collapse of a decade-long property bubble in 2008.
It employs just over 65,000 people in total.
"I think we have taken a great weight off of the state administration. We have based our model on being active people, of living from our own efforts," said ONCE president Miguel Carballeda who began his career at the organisation as a lottery ticket seller.
The strategy aims to leverage people's abilities, "with the idea that we should be valued for what we have and not for what we lack," he said.
ONCE also provides training to help disabled people more employable.
It translates textbooks into braille for those attending university and it operates a physiotherapy school for blind students, whose graduates are in high demand.
Classes are smaller than at other physiotherapy schools in Spain to give students more hours of hands-on practice.
A maximum of 24 students graduate from the school each year and all of them find work in their field after completing the four-year degree.
Graduates are successful not because blind people have a better sense of touch as many people mistakenly believe, but because they receive a higher level of training than those at other schools, the director of the school, Javier Sainz de Murieta, said.
"They either get extra training or else the whole world will prefer someone without a disability," he said.
Isabel Chacon, who will graduate from the school in May, said the school had given her a new sense of direction since she lost her vision six years ago due to complications from diabetes.
"I am really happy. Its a great feeling helping patients," the 33-year-old said.