President's Message: Discovering Madrid, ACB Style

by Mitch Pomerantz

A bit less than 24 hours ago as I begin this column, Donna and I stepped off an airplane after our week-long adventure in Madrid, Spain.  It wasn't the longest flight we've ever been on, but 11-plus hours from London to Los Angeles is a trial nonetheless.  And that doesn't include the two-hour flight from Madrid to London which began our return odyssey.

While we are home, our luggage is not; the customer service representative we spoke to believes our bags never made it out of the Madrid airport.  With any luck at all, we'll have our possessions sometime this evening.

So, to paraphrase Mrs. Lincoln's questioner after Ford's Theater: Other than that, how was the trip?  It was fantastic!  This will not be a travelogue, but an attempt to cover the highlights of ACB's initial collaborative effort with Road Scholar, an organization which arranges educational travel experiences primarily for seniors both here in the United States and throughout the world.  This effort was two years in the planning and was spearheaded from ACB's end by Sandra Sermons and Pam Shaw, respectively chairperson and member of our international relations committee.  Fourteen of us from around the country made the trip; all but one of us ACB members.

One of the reasons I was interested in going to Spain was to learn more about ONCE, which stands for Organizacion Nacional de Ciegos de Espana, or National Organization of Blind Spaniards.  I had heard a great deal about ONCE and had previously met one of its leaders, Enrique Perez, who is currently serving as secretary general of the World Blind Union.  ONCE was established in 1938 and operates one of Spain's national lotteries, although as we learned, not the only such endeavor in Spain.  This lottery provided the seed money for ONCE and also offers employment to hundreds of blind and otherwise disabled people as ticket vendors.  ONCE has grown far beyond lottery proceeds as a primary source of revenue, with a separate foundation which, among other ventures, owns the hotel in which we stayed.

On Tuesday morning, Donna and I met with ONCE's president, Miguel Carballeda, and vice president, Andres Ramos, at its headquarters.  We spent nearly 90 minutes with both gentlemen, learning about their organization and briefing them about ACB and the issues affecting blind and visually impaired people in the U.S.  We were informed that almost all blind Spaniards belong to ONCE by virtue of the fact that in order to receive blindness-related services, one must be certified as eligible for those services through ONCE.

To illustrate the breadth of its activities, ONCE operates a guide dog school (which we visited Tuesday afternoon) and five educational facilities (residential schools); we visited the Madrid facility Thursday morning.  The guide dog facility appears typical of those in the U.S., with Labrador retrievers, goldens and some shepherds being trained for guide work.  I was interested to observe that wherever the two members of our tour group with guide dogs went, they were accepted without difficulty.  Clearly, the Spanish public understands and recognizes the rights of guide dog handlers.

I need to mention here with regard to the residential schools operated by ONCE, that they primarily serve children who are blind and have other significant disabilities requiring more individualized attention.  The prevailing view in Spain is that blind children should be mainstreamed in their local schools, and ONCE promotes this by providing the braille materials necessary for the education of these students.  We had the chance to see some of the braille materials ONCE produces, including some excellent tactile maps and children's books.  My high-school and college Spanish began coming back to me as I thumbed through one such text.

Along with our meeting with the ONCE leadership, I must mention two other highlights of our trip.  The first was a visit to Toledo, the first capitol of Spain following its reconquest from the Moors.  It is in the mountains north of Madrid and contains a beautiful old cathedral as well as a former synagogue which is now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Sephardic Jewish community which thrived there during the time of the Moorish empire.

While there we also met with officials from the city of Toledo, who welcomed our tour group at a city hall ceremony.  I also had the opportunity to meet with a member of the Spanish Parliament who represents the Toledo area.  The gentleman uses a wheelchair; I initially connected with him following his visit to my former employer, the Los Angeles City Department on Disability, last year.  Francisco (Paco) Vano is a bright, energetic legislator who is keenly interested in advocating for the rights of people with disabilities in Spain.

Walking through Toledo also gave us the opportunity to experience, up close and personal, streets where automobiles and people shared the same territory.  While the Spanish drivers in Toledo were, by and large, mindful of the fact that there were pedestrians traversing the streets, I question whether American drivers would show equal courtesy under similar conditions.  This firsthand experience did nothing to change my mind concerning the inadvisability of exporting the "shared space" concept to the United States.

The other highlight of our Spanish experience also took place under the auspices of ONCE.  Have you ever wanted to see the Taj Mahal, the Kremlin, or the Eiffel Tower?  At the ONCE Museum you can!  Displayed throughout a large room were at least a score of detailed tactile models of world-famous monuments, including the aforementioned and many, many others.  The one American model we saw was the Statue of Liberty, but there may have been others.  It's the sort of museum where I could have spent hours, but didn't, due to our schedule.  If we return to Madrid, Donna and I will definitely spend more time at this most wonderful venue.

There were many other activities during the week which offered us a glimpse into Spain's rich history, its present and future.  The Road Scholar tour leader and the two assistants provided by ONCE were helpful and cognizant that some members of our group had mobility and stamina limitations.  Our tour guide, an employee of the city of Madrid, was extremely knowledgeable, although her command of English caused some linguistic challenges for us.  All in all, Road Scholar did a tremendous job in putting this tour together and it is my sincere hope that this will be the first of many collaborative international adventures involving it and the American Council of the Blind.