WHEN Michel Chapoutier, a wine-grower in the Rhone valley in south- eastern France, invented the first Braille label for wine bottles on his aging printing press, he did so for his friend, the singer, Gilbert Montagnie.
Little did he know that his invention would later win an award from campaigners for sight-impaired people in the UK.
Knowing his friend loved his Cotes du Rhone, Mr Chapoutier thought the logical thing was to allow him to identify his favourite tipple by touch.
"I was watching Gilbert Montagnie on the TV one day and he was explaining that he could not go into a store alone," says Mr Chapoutier. "He always had to have someone with him to tell him which wine he was picking up. I did some research and found that it was very easy to use old printing machines that are no longer used for normal print for the Braille instead. The cost is very low, about six centimes (less than 1p) per label."
The technique is the same as printing visible labels: an iron Braille negative is pressed onto the back of the paper label to make the Braille bumps. Mr Chapoutier decided to use his 40-year-old printing machine to make Braille labels for every one of the 2.5 million bottles of wine he produces each year. They have proved a success and the UK has now become his second biggest market.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind awarded him an innovation prize earlier this year for his Braille labels as part of their on-going "See It Right" campaign, designed to persuade organisations producing printed information to instigate special labels for the sight impaired.
As fewer than 20,000 of the one million registered blind and partially sighted people in the UK can read Braille, other methods are also being urged including the use of audio-tapes, large print and computer disks.
The RNIB's spokesman, Richard Lane, said last week the charity is using Mr Chapoutier's invention as a model while researching other possibilities for tactile labelling.
According to Mr Lane, there are only two other products in the UK currently labelled with Braille: domestic bleach, which carries a raised warning triangle; and an eye-drop medication called Broline.
"One of the challenges is how practical it will be to write Braille labels for goods on the shelves of our shops and supermarkets," said Mr Lane. "It will also create awareness for sight-impaired people who may have allergies."
Manufacturers have not produced Braille labels in the past partly because of the extra cost involved and also because Braille print takes up more space than normal print.
However, the supermarket chain, Sainsbury's, has appointed a dedicated manager in charge of developing better access for disabled shoppers, and Tesco has introduced an audio-tape of their Christmas Clubcard magazine for sight-impaired Clubcard customers.
Meanwhile, on the slopes of the Rhone Valley, among his vineyards, Mr Chapoutier has his own suggestion. "With the widespread use of bar-codes in shops, it could be easy for such codes to hold information for blind people. They could use special pens to decode the information and then hear about the product through a speaker."
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