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Physical Disabilities Should Not Be an Obstacle: Making SAP Systems Accessible to Everyone

by Keith Elliot | SAPinsider

July 1, 2001

by Keith Elliot, SAP Task Force SAPinsider - 2001 (Volume 2), July (Issue 3)

      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 with disabilities.

     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 Walldorf, Germany.

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 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.

Global Alliances

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 Project).

     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."

Accessibility Matters

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 own future."

     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."

1 See for detailed information on Section 508 and links to other resources.

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