It's impossible to imagine today's workplace
without IT equipment - printers, faxes, copiers, and of course desktop
workstations for writing, drafting, calculating, analyzing, researching,
and above all, messaging. Clearly, people who can't use this gear have
a hard time getting and holding office jobs. And yet many of these same
people are highly qualified for their positions, but due to various physical
disabilities, they either cannot reach, or see, or hear the apparatus
and information they need.
This year, new U.S. government legislation
will take effect to help improve their access to IT equipment and information,
and more importantly, their access to jobs. Section 508 is part
of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, comprising a set of regulations regard-ing
the procurement of technology for U.S. government agencies, though not
for private industry. Section 508 was most recently amended in 1998, with
new rules that took effect on June 21
of this year.
Section 508 directs that after June 21,
all IT products which are procured by a federal agency - including copiers
and fax machines, information products, data software, and any kind of
online data products - must be accessible to people with disabilities
unless it would pose an undue burden to do so.1
This also applies to those federal agencies (often referred to as "e-Government")
which expose information or processes to the public over the web; their
sys-tems need to be compliant as well. Section 508 mandates government
agencies to "ensure that … federal employees with disabilities
… have access to and use of information and data that is comparable
to the access
of those without disabilities."
Building Accessibility into SAP Solutions
By extension, all vendors of IT systems, processes, and hardware to federal
agencies must be able to demonstrate that their wares comply with the
standards which accompany the new regulations. And as a significant vendor
of IT systems and processes to U.S. government agencies, SAP too is obligated
to demonstrate how its systems and processes comply with Section 508 regulations.
But SAP's commitment to providing access
to people with disabilities is, in fact, independent of the mandates of
Section 508. Developing accessible software is a global policy that SAP
has been pursuing for a number of years, and in fact, SAP already supports
many software solutions that are accessible to everyone, including people
As part of the effort to ensure compliance
with Section 508, SAP has established a task force in Palo Alto, California,
responsible for evaluating the compliance of SAP solutions. Led by Keith
Elliott (Manager, User Experience Group), the SAP Task Force on
Section 508 compliance has only been in existence since February 2001.
But in fact there has been meaningful work on accessibility done at SAP
since the early 1990s, mostly in the Basis technologies area through the
GUI design teams, with support from the Usability Engineering Group in
|Keith Elliott of the SAP Task Force on Section 508
"What we're doing here in Palo Alto
is building an Accessibility Competence Center inside SAP Labs,"
says Elliott. "It's funded and reports directly to executive management,
and we're a permanent, highly committed group. We're putting up a new
web site and working with development groups and external companies
to seek out any gaps in our software. We're going to document where we
are compliant and where there are gaps, and then go back to the development
people to get the gaps fixed."
A visit to the fledgling web site at www.saplabs.com
demonstrates that the SAP Task Force on Accessibility
is intent on becoming more actively involved by providing ongoing information
and support within SAP and other interested organizations regarding the
need for accessible designs, accessibility requirements for all SAP solutions,
and recent advances in enabling technologies from other partners and providers.
Elliott points out that SAP is also developing relationships on IT accessibility
with leading corporations like IBM, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems, and
provides links to their efforts from the SAP Accessibility Competence
Center web page. And SAP is a sponsor of Stanford University's CSLI research
institute, which is conducting a state-of-the-art project to integrate
the latest communication research into the design of an architecture that
would support accessibility for all kinds of disabilities (the Archimedes
Though SAP is a huge backend system that
runs on different databases, it supports different ways to access the
system through different GUIs. For example, there is SAP GUI for Java,
SAP GUI for Windows, and more recently SAP has developed SAP GUI for HTML.
"We're learning that there are different levels of accessibility
depending upon which GUI you use," states Elliott. "For instance,
one of our best options for accessibility is the SAP GUI for Java, which
supports Sun Microsystems Java Access Bridge.
"We're also working with a third-party
company called SSB Technol-ogies," Elliott continues. "They
are major players in the area of verifying accessibility using automated
tools and they're working with us right now to assess the accessibility
of our key
products. We'll have some papers coming out over the next few weeks
and months verifying where we are in accessibility areas.
"In addition, we had an SAP Acces-sibility
Demo area at the SAPPHIRE conference in Orlando with a panel discussion
on accessibility. We intend
to put ourselves on the landscape of companies who care about accessibility."
In a sense, Elliott points out, we will all become "disabled"
at some time in the future. Statistically, as a population ages, almost
everyone becomes more or less disabled at some point in their lives. At
35 years old, only 1 out of 20 people has a severe disability. But by
the time you reach 55-65, the number approaches half. And by the time
you reach age 75, three-fourths of the population must cope with visual
impairments, hearing impairments, or other disabilities.
"We want our systems to be available
over the Internet to everyone, especially the aged and disabled, for many
of whom Internet access is a vital connection with society," says
Elliott. "It's important because in practical terms, we're all going
to be there ourselves someday. In a sense, this is an investment in our
That's why Elliott feels that it is important
to start integrating assistive technologies into SAP's systems right now,
and that SAP's interest in accessibility should be broader than simply
complying with Section 508.
|Statistically, as a population ages, almost
everyone becomes more or less disable at some point in their lives.
At 35 years old, only 1 out of 20 people has a severe disability.
But by the time you reach 55-65, the number approaches half. And by
the time you reach age 75, three-fourths of the population must cope
with visual impairments, hearing impairements or other disabilities.
"You can strictly formally comply
with Section 508 but still not have useable software," he claims.
"What we are aiming for is accessibility in the broader sense of
usability for people who have disabilities. We're going to publicize what
we are doing along the way; we're going to create checklists
for developers inside SAP, within our customer community, and within the
wider third-party industry that works with SAP to let them know what needs
to be done. We're just trying to raise
the visibility of how important it is to include these capabilities in
the development right from the start."
www.section508.gov for detailed
information on Section 508 and links to other resources.